Local authorities have called on ministers to extend free school meal vouchers to include the February half term, as pressure grew on the government over its handling of the issue during the latest coronavirus lockdown.
The Local Government Association, which represents councils, on Thursday urged a rethink after government guidance said schools should not distribute vouchers during the upcoming holiday. It also called on ministers to work toward a “sustainable, long-term solution” for families facing hardship.
Food poverty campaigner and footballer Marcus Rashford joined the call for the government to “future-proof” its policy on free school meals.
In a letter to prime minister Boris Johnson, signed by 40 celebrities, heads of charities, health specialists and education leaders, he called for an “urgent” review.
“This review would provide the Government with the opportunity to future-proof its policy on school food, and to carefully consider how best to support low-income children and families in the aftermath of the pandemic,” he wrote.
The pressure follows outrage earlier this week over poor food provision for disadvantaged children, after images of meagre rations sent to families reliant on free schools meals was widely circulated on social media by Mr Rashford.
Charities and unions have blamed the government for issuing guidance that “strongly encouraged” schools to distribute the food parcels through their existing caterers following its abrupt decision to close all schools last week after ministers had insisted for months that they must stay open.
The controversy threatens a repeat of the saga last year when Boris Johnson was forced into two U-turns over providing free schools meals during summer and Christmas holidays following campaigns led by Mr Rashford.
Many schools have already started to replace food parcels with vouchers, which the government committed to refund ahead of a national scheme being rolled out next week.
But Labour on Thursday called on the government to simplify the process and give cash directly to parents for free school meals. Kate Green, shadow education secretary, said that, instead of food parcels or vouchers, families should receive £15 a week for each child on free school meals.
Many local authorities had originally planned to supplement those families eligible for free school meals during the February half term using funds from the Covid winter grant scheme put in place at the end of last year to help low-income families over the school holidays following Mr Rashford’s campaign.
But the LGA said the changed circumstances of a new lockdown and further economic hardship meant they needed more support from government.
Richard Watts, the chair of the LGA resource board, said the winter grant was a “short-term fix” and said more long-term support such as continuing an uplift in benefits was needed to help disadvantaged families.
“In order to enable local government to continue to play a vital role in supporting families facing hardship, a more sustainable, long-term solution that does not rely on inefficient short-term funding is needed to meet the needs of low-income families,” he said.
The Department for Education on Thursday insisted that the winter grant scheme ensured that vulnerable families would have food and essentials during the half term.
“Our guidance is clear: schools provide free school meals for eligible pupils during term time,” it said. “Beyond that, there is wider government support in place to support families and children via the billions of pounds in welfare support we’ve made available.”