Children eligible for free school meals will benefit from a national voucher scheme allowing them to continue to access meals whilst they stay at home, the government has announced.
Schools will be able provide every eligible child with a weekly shopping voucher worth £15 to spend at supermarkets while schools are closed due to coronavirus.
Schools can continue to provide meals for collection or delivery themselves, but where this is not possible, the scheme will allow schools to provide vouchers to families electronically, or as a gift card for those without internet access.
The vouchers can be spent on food at a range of shops including Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S, with the government hoping to get more shops to join the scheme.
Commenting, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “I recognise that the unprecedented action this Government is taking to protect the country from coronavirus, including closing schools, is dramatically affecting the lives of many families.
“I want to thank schools for the support they are continuing to provide to families during such uncertain times.
“No child should go hungry as a result of the measures introduced to keep people at home, protect the NHS and save lives.
“That’s why we are launching this scheme to make sure children who usually benefit from free school meals still have access to healthy and nutritious meals while they are not attending school.”
Parents will receive the voucher through their child’s school, which can then be redeemed online via a code, or sent to their house as a gift card and used at supermarkets across the country.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT), said: “This is welcome news for schools and families. This new system fills in one of the remaining gaps in the complex jigsaw puzzle of provision that has arisen from the Covid-19 crisis.
“There may be some kinks to work out of the scheme, especially as it has been developed at pace, but at least there is some certainty available now.
“The government has done the right thing by ensuring that vouchers can be used at a range of different shops, making it more practical for families to use the vouchers.
“Many schools had already developed their own schemes and local solutions, so it is good to see that they will be able to continue these if they’re working well or adopt the new scheme if they feel that would be better.
“We’ll be working with the government to make sure this system works as effectively as everyone hopes it will.”
The announcement comes after poverty campaigners warned that the UK is “facing a poverty crisis“, while calling on the government to increase child benefit by £10 per week for every eligible child.
The latest poverty statistics show that the number of children in poverty has risen by 100,000 over the last decade, from 3.6 million to 4.2 million – equal to 30% of all children living in the UK.
Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said: “This data always makes grim reading for people concerned about child poverty and this year, on the tenth anniversary of the now abolished Child Poverty Act passing into law it is grimmer still.”
She continued: “Raising the adult rate in universal credit and tax credits is a welcome improvement, but more is needed when it comes to reducing child poverty.
“Unless concerted action is taken now, this week’s laid-off workers and their children will be adding to next year’s poverty statistics.
“School closures will increase costs and place a greater burden on families struggling to keep their heads above water.
“We are calling for an extra £10 per week per child to be added to child benefit as the most effective way of getting support to families quickly.
“Additional payments for children of an extra £10 per week through universal credit and tax credits are also needed to help avoid struggle turning to real hardship for families during the pandemic.
“The benefit cap and the two-child limit policies most also be removed to prevent the poorest families missing out.
“To prevent rising child poverty leading to a longer-term public health disaster, we need urgent action to support struggling families and their children.
“Growing up in poverty puts the health and wellbeing of 30% of the UK’s children at risk, but this is an avoidable threat to the health of the nation.
“Investing in children is both a moral responsibility and the most significant investment we as a nation can make for our future.
“Now is the time for action as the government is making an unprecedented investment to protect the economy and the nation’s health. Children deserve nothing less.”