COVID-19: Is the national voucher scheme for free school meals working?

Around 1.3 million children in England are eligible for free school meals. Due to the outbreak of coronavirus, families are having to deal with the unexpected cost of feeding their children during term time. As well as this unprecedented, extended period of children staying at home, extra strain is being placed on families as many have been plunged into further financial difficulty due to business closures and wage cuts. Furthermore, due to shopping restrictions enforced by supermarkets to prevent stockpiling, families will not be able to buy in bulk to save money which means extra costs will be incurred from buying small amounts.

In order to ensure that the 15.4% of the school population who are eligible to receive free school meals are continuing to be fed, the government have quickly set up a national voucher scheme. Families will receive £15 per week per child which equates to £3 a day for a five-day week, and just over £2 a day to extend the voucher for the entirety of the week. The curators of the scheme claim that the credit received through the vouchers account for the extra costs which families are facing during the outbreak. The vouchers can be spent at a wide range of supermarkets and the government claims that more will be added to the list. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson stated that “this scheme make(s) sure children who usually benefit from free school meals still have access to healthy and nutritious meals while they are not attending school.”

However, there have been delays in receiving the vouchers as the government selected online system ‘Edenred’ which is being used to access the vouchers has been overwhelmed by users. This means that some children may not be receiving food as the government tries to tackle the issue. This delay explains why some schools have abandoned the voucher system and worked to provide food parcels to their children themselves, with costs incurred refunded by the government.

The desperation for food has led to teachers and staff personally compiling and delivering food parcels to the children at their school. Zane Powles, headteacher of Western Primary School in Grimsby has walked five miles a day since the start of the outbreak in order to deliver food to eighty families in desperation. Powles believes that the welfare of the children in his primary school is still his responsibility and states that “this is just a part of my job I never expected to do”.

In many schools, however, it has not been possible for teachers and volunteers to create and deliver food parcels to be refunded by the government or utilise local authorities before the voucher scheme runs efficiently. This means that in the meantime, there may be families who will struggle to provide their children with three meals per day.

Alex Rimmer

Image: Pexels.