Families despairing as holiday grocery vouchers ‘cancelled’, teachers warn school meals

Councils across England are “quietly scrapping” holiday voucher schemes for children with free school meals, which has left many families desperate at this half-term, school leaders and charities warn.

It took a massive public campaign, led by Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford, to force Boris Johnson into an about-face on feeding children from the lowest income families during the school holidays in November 2020.

However, the Government has said it is now up to individual councils whether to continue offering the £15-a-week vouchers. Local authorities such as Reading, York, Wakefield, Stoke-on-Trent, Leeds and Birmingham have dropped them. Experts say parents are facing a zip code lottery to get help.

Emma Cantrell, founder of First Days, a charity dedicated to tackling child poverty in Berkshire, said: “There is no doubt that there have been parents who have not been able to put food on the table this half term and children will be going to school hungry on Monday to return.”

Cantrell works with a group that distributes surplus food and said they were “overrun by families desperate to get their hands on something this week”. Her charity manages the children’s vouchers on behalf of Wokingham City Council. However, neighboring Reading has dropped the programme.

“There’s a way that kids on different sides get completely different support, with help for one family and no help for another,” she said.

Cantrell, whose charity gives out free beds and uniforms to struggling families, said demand for help has doubled in the past six months and she now regularly sees children who are “visibly malnourished.”

She added: “Councils will look like the bad guys [for cutting vouchers], but this is a result of changes by the government. It’s happening incredibly quietly, so most people don’t know it’s happening.”

In 2020, Rashford called on the Government to extend its £15 free school meal vouchers – originally set up to feed children during school hours when schools were closed due to the pandemic – into the holidays.

Ahead of both the summer and Christmas holidays, Johnson and his Chancellor Rishi Sunak fought doggedly and refused, only to be forced into a humiliating about-face each time following waves of criticism from charities, the media, Labor and some Tory MPs.

Funding for holiday vouchers in England must now come from the Local Authorities Budget Support Fund, which was introduced by the Government in October last year.

A spokesman for the Department for Works and Pensions said: “The fund was recently increased by a further £421m.

The councils, which are cutting the vouchers, say support for children with free school meals is still available through other programs but that they have used up too much of their share of the household support fund, which is designed to help people across the community.

A spokesman for Reading City Council said it would “consolidate food and energy support into one cost-of-living voucher” aimed at the poorest families and the elderly.

Anne Longfield, Chair of the Young Life Commission and former Children’s Commissioner, told the observer She was “really concerned” that “more and more communities” are withdrawing food aid to the poorest families.

“Families in some areas are being left out of the water,” she said. “These vouchers may be small, but they can stop misery.”

She called on the government to recognize the growing number of families in poverty, adding: “This is not a personal issue. It is a national crisis that should be discussed alongside calming the markets.”

Jonny Uttley, chief executive of the Education Alliance Academy Trust, which runs seven schools in Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire, said: “Wakefield Council has told us they cannot afford the vouchers. it’s just luck If you live in Hull you get £15 but in other authorities you get nothing.”

So that the children don’t go hungry during the holidays, the foundation now pays vouchers from its own reserves, even though it is under great financial pressure.

James Bowen, policy director for school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “It cannot be right that it depends on where they live whether families have access to financial support to ensure children are adequately fed during the holidays.” He added, “We know some children depend on school for their only safe meal of the day.”

A single mum in Leeds with two boys who received free school meals and asked not to be named, said: “The voucher covered most of the food for a week and we’ve gotten used to it. But suddenly it stopped coming.”

During that semester she had to borrow money from her parents to feed her children. “Most politicians have never had to worry about buying groceries for the week,” she said. “I don’t think they understand, and I don’t think they care.”

A spokesman for Leeds City Council said they would continue to offer free meals this Christmas as part of their healthy holiday scheme, but that their share of the budget support fund would “prioritise fuel support” this winter.

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