Written evidence submitted by Children’s Food Campaign and School Food Matters (COV0055)

30 April 2020


About Children’s Food Campaign

Children’s Food Campaign (CFC) aims to improve children and young people's health by campaigning for policy changes in our schools and communities that promote healthy and sustainable food environments. Children's Food Campaign is part of Sustain, the alliance for food and farming, and is supported by over 100 UK-wide and national organisations, including children’s and health charities and professional bodies, trade unions, school food experts and environmental organisations.

 

About School Food Matters

School Food Matters exists to teach children about food and to improve children’s access to healthy, sustainable food during their time at school. We provide fully-funded food education programmes to schools.  Our experience delivering these programmes informs and strengthens our campaigns, bringing the voices of children, parents and teachers to government policy.


Q2:  Are the Government and food industry doing enough to support people to access sufficient healthy food; and are any groups not having their needs met? If not, what further steps should the government and food industry take?

 

Summary of Recommendations

 


 

Background

There was a lack of preparedness for the closure of schools, and the impact this would have on children receiving free school meals. Prior to the Coronavirus outbreak the Food Foundation estimated that more than 1.6 million people were already facing food insecurity. It is also estimated that one million children aged 7-16 live in food insecure households but do not receive free school meals.  In the first three weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown three million people reported to have gone hungry with half of this group not having eaten for a whole day.[1] Preliminary data suggests those who are most affected by household food insecurity linked to COVID-19 are adults with disabilities, black and minority ethnic individuals, and families with children.[2] On 14 April 2020, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey confirmed that the number of people applying for Universal Credit had risen by 1.4 million since the coronavirus crisis began.  

 

Data from the Department for Education shows that on the first day of school closures (23 March) 3.7% (330,000) pupils were attending school, but by 24 April the number had dropped to 1.6% (156,000), suggesting that the vast majority of children were staying at home, many of whom would require some form of free school meal offer to be provided[3].

 


 

Vulnerable families’ eligibility for free school meals during the emergency

The Government guidance has only related to children ‘eligible for benefit-related free school meals’, which omits all the children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 who were previously in receipt of Universal Infant Free School Meals. Whilst we accept the logic of DfE prioritising the needs of the most vulnerable children, it failed to recognise the large numbers of children in the UK living in food insecure households not eligible to receive free school meals. Furthermore, children in the 1.4 million households who have recently applied for Universal Credit, as well as those with no recourse to public funds, were not included in pre-existing pupil premium lists. Instead DfE guidance leaves decisions over which families to feed to headteachers’ own discretion.

 

Education Minister Vicky Ford announced on 23 April that Schools should seek to serve the needs of families who had applied for Universal Credit, prior to their evidence being assessed. However, under rules introduced in April 2018, these families would have to meet the new eligibility threshold of £7,400 net income in order to qualify. This effectively put schools in the position of having to provide meals to children, without any guarantee that the money involved would be reimbursed[4].

 

The Welsh Government has already announced £33m funding for schools to maintain food programmes over holiday periods, but a similar commitment for England has yet to be made by the Department for Education.

 

Recommendations:

 


Commitment to school catering supply chains first

In the early stages of communication, the Department for Education did not make clear to schools that (a) they would continue to receive their full UIFSM and Pupil Premium grants and (b) the preferred route of delivery should be via existing catering contracts where these arrangements could transition to meet the needs.

 

This left both schools and caterers at the time of school closures with little assurance of where the money was going to come from to continue to provide school meals to those children who needed them. We are aware that some catering operations then took the opportunity to reduce their operations and furlough staff at the end of March, rather than face continued financial insecurity. On 20 March Cabinet Office issued the Procurement Policy Note 02/20 designed to give reassurance to caterers at risk during school closures however the guidance has been interpreted in different ways by different local authorities managing group contracts and caterers are left feeling vulnerable.

 

On 31 March, Department for Education launched its National School Voucher Scheme in partnerships with Edenred.  This further confused the existing arrangements between schools, local authorities and their caterers, as these vouchers were centrally funded and, at £15 per child per week, had a higher value than the free school meal allowance of £11.50 per week. This provided an incentive for schools to end their catering arrangements (yet still hold onto their FSM funding) and transition families to the national voucher scheme instead. Furthermore, many local authorities and school clusters had already launched their own voucher schemes or alternative payment schemes. Examples can be found in London Borough of Enfield, in South Lanarkshire in Scotland[5] and in Manchester City Council, which adopted Paypoint to provide cash to parents, whilst the London Borough of Wandsworth set all its schools up on Wonde, a voucher scheme giving families access to four supermarkets. However, councils are financially disadvantaged in that they have to make a separate, additional application to have their own voucher or payment schemes refunded by the Department for Education.

 

The national school voucher scheme

The national school meal voucher scheme for England was only intended as a last resort option where existing catering arrangements were not viable, however the high profile promise of £15 per week per child raised expectations amongst many parents, whilst the centrally funded nature of the scheme provided an incentive for school leaders to drop catering relationships (adding to the already precarious business models of the public sector caterers) and enrol families in this scheme instead. The Edenred system was quickly overwhelmed with applications and was not able to quickly process the requests for vouchers.

 

The scheme was launched with just six retail partners that did not include Aldi, Lidl, Co-op or chains of independent/convenience stores where many lower-income families are likely to shop. Aldi and McColl’s joined the scheme in the final week of April 2020.  Only two retailers offered online redemption of vouchers, but online shopping portals required a minimum spend, and delivery slots were largely unavailable to anyone registering new accounts.

 

Schools who opted to take up the voucher scheme faced a huge administrative burden in order to register their families. The email to enable schools to register for the scheme was sent from Edenred, rather than the Department for Education, therefore many emails went into spam filters requiring heads to contact their local authority to release emails.

 

Heads then had to register each of their free school meal families but first needed to check that the families could access email and would be able to redeem a digital voucher. In some cases, school staff had to visit families not responding to phone, email or text messages. Edenred offered schools a telephone helpline at a premium rate (changed after protests to standard rate), with schools incurring huge costs in trying to access the system or to check on progress with their applications. If schools got through the registration process, families were sent an e-code directly from Edenred, and were also required then to log on to Edenred’s website (freeschoolmeals.co.uk) to enter the e-code, choose a supermarket and receive a digital voucher. Families were faced with long waits to access the e-code page.  We heard of parents resorting to trying the site in the middle of the night to avoid the queue, as well as families using up phone credit as a direct result of their efforts. Those without internet or printing facilities at home are still at a disadvantage with school staff having to redeem vouchers on their behalf and print for parents to collect.

 

Finally, there have been many reports of parents successful in converting e-codes to vouchers were then faced with the humiliation of having the vouchers rejected at some supermarket tills.

 

All of the above factors made it incredibly complex, expensive and time consuming for schools to administer the vouchers, for parents to redeem them, and created additional unnecessary journeys to other shops than those nearest to their homes, adding to overall risk to public health.

 

Finally, it was only after lobbying that the voucher scheme was extended to include the Easter holidays.  Schools and caterers continuing to manage their own delivery of meals and food parcels which they extended over the school holidays were not offered additional funding for this service, unless they applied for additional funding through the government’s ‘exceptional costs’ arrangements. As of 30 April, the Department for Education has not confirmed funding to cover the May half-term week nor the summer holidays.

 

Recommendations:

 


 

Children with no recourse to public funds

As a result of a legal action brought by law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, and in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and campaigning by civil society groups, the government temporarily extended free school meal provision on a temporary basis to include certain categories of children who are supported under section 17 of the children act 1989 but whose families are subject to a restriction meaning they have “from households with “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF)[6]. However, the extension of FSM to children from households under NRPF is only ‘temporary’, whilst the situation of the children from these households will not have changed in economic or social terms[7].

 

In a letter sent to Secretary of State for Education on 30 April, Sustain and School Food Matters outlined some of our key concerns with this new policy.[8] First of all a maximum income threshold set at £7,400 means that in order to be eligible a household can earn a maximum of £616 a month. Whilst the maximum income threshold is the same for other eligible families, this income is then topped up by welfare payments such as Universal Credit or child tax credit all of which families with NRPF are unable to claim. Then the extension of the eligibility to receive free school meals is not for all children with NRPF, just children who fit certain immigration categories meaning many thousands of children in need still miss out. Finally, the support is going to be rescinded as soon as schools are open to all pupils regardless of whether children with NRPF still need the support meaning that children will go hungry.

 

Some Local Authorities and devolved administrations are providing additional discretionary support to children with NRPF. The Welsh Government for example has stated that regarding families with NRPF they “strongly encourage local authorities to exercise their discretion to allow the children of these families to benefit from local authority free school meal provision for the duration of school closure.”[9]

 

Recommendations:


 

School Food Matters/Children’s Food Campaign submission to Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee enquiry on Covid19 and Food Supply

 

Appendix - Comments from parents, teachers and caterers

 

“What I would like to understand is for all my schools I set up a food parcel model - a quality ingredient box (not like some we have seen). We issued 600 across our schools last Friday to families in need. We are continuing to do so - it supports local business, it ensures food is provided for our pupils, it gives a light touch communication point to our vulnerable families. It stops parents going to the supermarket where a) food supply fluctuates or b) stops adding to the amount of people visiting the supermarket. Catering teams feel valued and engaged. Our families feel supported. They have been so grateful and it's working well. We did this as we know our families best and were quick to react to the crisis as I work closely with my suppliers…. Then the voucher scheme came in! This means effectively schools are benefiting financially from the voucher scheme as we all get to keep the FSM and UIFSM money and Government sort the vouchers separately basically not having to touch their funds. We are penalised for doing the right thing as have to purchase the ingredients from our current FSM funding for the parcels … this is hardly equitable and fair? I understand it works in some instances and was grateful for the safety net support of the vouchers but the government say on the one hand talk to your caterer first and then make it an impossible choice financially.”

 Sam Ward, Torbay, Working for 8 primary schools in Torbay, Exeter area.

 

“I finally get through to the number they gave on the website and get to a message saying ‘If you are a school administrator calling about free school meals vouchers call … a different number. I then called that number, waited for 45 minutes before being cut off. The next day I called the new number at 9.00 and got through at 9.48. Hurrah! But I now realise I am being charged standard rate for the call – why is it not free?”

Carmen Palmer, Headteacher, SW London

 

“Really feel for the single parent who is stuck at home in self-isolation, unable to physically go to the shops... trying to use the govt. food vouchers to shop online. Hours spent trying to log on to system. Then unable to get delivery slots for chosen supermarket... She tried M&S instead for second voucher as only supermarket with delivery slots - would not accept the code. Back to delivering food parcels for this family.”

Georgina Young, Primary Headteacher, East of England

 

“I’m trying to decide what to do next – thinking perhaps I will need to purchase vouchers myself and try to claim back as I am worried. In the meantime, I am going to send parents a link to a charity who will deliver ready cooked meals in extremis.”

Carmen Palmer, Headteacher, SW London

 

“I still don’t have my vouchers but my sister has had a few vouchers. She cannot spend one of her vouchers in Marks & Spencer is they are refusing them. Also, she cannot spend vouchers in local smaller Sainsbury stores they also are refusing them. She has however managed to spend four vouchers in the large Sainsbury’s store but this store is over 2 miles walk for her and she has four children. Her closest shop which is overly expensive on her door step a Waitrose was an easy experience in spending a voucher.”

Parent, Primary school in SW London

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] ENUF, Kings College London, Food Foundation (2020) Vulnerability to Food Insecurity Since COVID-19 lockdown. Preliminary report. https://foodfoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Report_COVID19FoodInsecurity-final.pdf

[2] ENUF, Kings College London, Food Foundation (2020) Vulnerability to Food Insecurity Since COVID-19 lockdown. Preliminary report. https://foodfoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Report_COVID19FoodInsecurity-final.pdf

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-attendance-in-education-and-early-years-settings

[4] https://schoolsweek.co.uk/coronavirus-schools-can-feed-pupils-without-evidence-of-universal-credit-claim-says-minister/

[5] https://www.southlanarkshire.gov.uk/info/200228/health_and_medical_information/1863/coronavirus_covid-19_advice/21

[6] Sustain and Project 17 (2020) Briefing paper: Free school meals & immigration policy https://www.sustainweb.org/resources/files/reports/Free_school_meals_and_immigration_policy.pdf and Hackney Migrant Centre (2020) Children with No Recourse to Public Funds: The need for free school meals https://hackneymigrantcentre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Children-with-NRPF-The-need-for-FSM.pdf

[7] Department for Education (2020) Coronavirus (COVID-19): temporary extension of free school meal eligibility to NRPF groups https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-free-school-meals-guidance/guidance-for-the-temporary-extension-of-free-school-meals-eligibility-to-nrpf-groups

[8] Sustain et al (2020) Re: Temporary extension of free school meals eligibility to NRPF groups

[9] https://gov.wales/free-school-meals-coronavirus-guidance-schools