‘Holiday hunger’ fears as families on free school meals say half-term help is ‘drop in the ocean’

Postcode lottery means not every local authority provides the same level of help as families stuggle amid soaring food costs

Zoe Tidman
Saturday 22 October 2022 18:57 BST
Primary school headteacher says lack of free school meals for all is ‘a travesty’

Struggling families on free school meals say help available over half-term is a “drop in the ocean” as inflation hits a 40-year high.

Many low-income families will receive vouchers during the October break, but parents and unions say at £15 per child it just isn’t enough to match soaring food prices.

And due to a postcode lottery, others will either get less help or none at all.

“Frankly, £3 a day for a hot meal is not going to stretch very far, particularly in light of rising food prices,” James Bowen from the NAHT education union said.

Have you been affected by this story? Get in touch with zoe.tidman@independent.co.uk

Mr Bowen said it cannot be right that access to financial support to help families feed children during the holidays depends on where they live.

“Holiday hunger is something school leaders have become increasingly concerned by and this patchwork approach seems wholly inadequate,” he added.

Headteachers are also worried families could fall through the cracks as they do not qualify for free school meals, despite needing support.

It comes as The Independent calls on the government to provide free school lunches to all children in poverty by expanding the eligibility criteria.

We asked 152 local authorities whether they have targeted schemes to help pupils on free school meals with food during the October half-term.

Most who replied – 80 out of 91 – have support specifically for these families during the break. This includes vouchers and payments – mainly £15, but in some cases £10 or £20 – and food collection sites.

Some will run holiday clubs, instead, that are free for children on free school meals and include food.

But low-income families have said these can be difficult to access due to travel and inconvenient drop-off and pick-up times with work.

One in nine councils who replied – 11 – said they did not have any specific free school meal half-term support. This included Derbyshire, North Yorkshire, Cornwall and the Isle of Wight.

But there are postcode lotteries even within these areas, as city councils give out vouchers. Pupils in Derby, for example, will be getting free school meal vouchers this half-term.

Councils said they were choosing to spend the limited Household Support Fund – a government allocation used to fund free school meal holiday support – in other ways to help low-income families over winter.

Many are planning one-off payments due to be paid after half-term.

Faith Agnwet says the vouchers are a ‘drop in the ocean’ as food costs soar (Supplied)

A mother in North Yorkshire said it was a “big relief” when vouchers were put on during previous holidays – although this is no longer the case for the October half-term.

“If North Yorkshire did do vouchers, I would not be worrying about how I was going to feed my children through the holiday,” the mother, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

The council said it had put together a “coordinated response” to the cost of living crisis but was not planning for this to include free school meal vouchers over half-term.

Even those families who live elsewhere and are receiving vouchers say they do not cover soaring food costs.

The Independent is calling for more children to be eligible for free school meals in England (PA)

Faith Agnwet lives in Southwark in south London, where families on free school meals are getting £15 a child to help with half-term.

Ms Agnwet said that in the current climate, £15 would not buy much. The cost of food and drink has increased at its sharpest rate since 1980 and inflation is back at 10.1 per cent.

“It’s a drop in the ocean,” she said. “Maybe some minced meat, bread, milk and then maybe have a fiver left,” she said. “It won’t cover a whole week.”

Southwark Council’s deputy leader, Jasmine Ali, agreed that £15 per child would not go far but said there had been “woeful underfunding and lack of support” from government. “We have to push our budgets to their limit to even cover this.”

A mother-of-two in Ealing, who wished to remain anonymous, also qualifies for a £15 voucher per child but said this would not go very far with the rising cost of food.

Mumin Humayun, a headteacher in Luton, where families on free school meals are also getting £15 vouchers, said: “It helps but doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t take into account the significant rise in the cost of living.

“We also have many families who don’t qualify.”

Councils not providing vouchers or holiday clubs with free food over half-term said it was not feasible due to funding constraints and they were supporting low-income families in other ways – including with emergency grants or supermarket vouchers.

Neil Irving, from North Yorkshire County Council, said it was still finalising details of the latest Household Support Fund but expected to use it to provide supermarket vouchers to low-income families as before. Previous rounds have also given families energy vouchers and pumped money into food banks, he said.

Derbyshire County Council said it no longer did free school meals in summer holidays but had offered one-off grocery vouchers at various times throughout the year as well as grants to struggling families. It was in the process of finalising plans for the winter round of the Household Support Fund.

Cornwall Council said it wanted to use money from the fund in a similar way as before, including a single £80 cost of living payment for families who get free school meals that give families “greater flexibility”.

And Isle of Wight Council said food vouchers were not “a long-term solution to food poverty” and it wanted to provide grants that “deliver sustainable sources of support across the winter months” rather than specific school holidays.

Other councils have been approached for comment.

A government spokesperson said its Household Support Fund has recently been boosted by £421m and allows councils – who know their areas best – to “target support to those most in need” including during school holidays.

“This government has expanded access to free school meals more than any other in recent decades, and we will continue to keep all free school meal eligibility under review, to ensure that these meals are supporting those who most need them,” they said.

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