Written evidence submitted by School Food Matters
School Food Matters – Submission to the Education Committee
Inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services
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.
Our submission to this inquiry is framed around our areas of expertise: school food, food education and issues relating to children’s health and wellbeing. We have focused our response on the call for evidence on the following three topics, taken from the Terms of Reference:
Summary of Recommendations
Support for pupils and families during closures, including … children’s and young people’s mental health and safety outside of the structure and oversight of in-person education.
School meals during school closures
It is difficult to overstate the value and the benefits of access to healthy, high quality meals at school, underpinned by comprehensive food education. Research has demonstrated that children who are provided with healthy, fresh meals are likely to do better academically, have fewer behavioural issues, and are less likely to develop obesity and other related health issues. The development of the School Food Plan and School Food Standards are an acknowledgement of the importance of healthy eating at school.
In this time of crisis, we recognise parents are struggling, and it is impractical to expect the School Food Standards are enforced while students are at home. However, we believe it is the responsibility of all of us to make it as easy as possible for students to receive meals that adhere to the standards as closely as possible. To this end, School Food Matters partnered with BiteBack2030 to produce a shopping list and menu plan that parents can use to prepare meals with the £15 voucher made available through the national voucher scheme. Other organisations developed ‘cook-alongs’ for families which help bring a sense of community, as well as assisting parents to prepare healthy, affordable meals.
We also commend the work of the LEAP Federation, who have worked with the charity Chefs in Schools to keep school kitchens open. They have been able to provide weekly meal hampers that feed children and families from nine local schools, distributed from three school hubs. The hampers include: a hand of bananas, six tomatoes, a cucumber, four apples, six eggs, a loaf of bread, baked beans, four large potatoes, a freshly made curry (vegetable or meat), pasta sauces and biscuits. They are purposely bulked out with surplus food supplies to help feed the entire family. We believe this approach has merit, and should be used more widely, as teachers and staff involved have spoken positively about using the collection point as an opportunity to check-in with families and continue safeguarding vulnerable children.
However, we remain concerned that across the UK many children have not been receiving appropriate, healthy meals since the start of the lockdown. In early May 2020, a YouGov survey commissioned by the Food Foundation suggested that since schools closed, approximately five million people living in households with children under 18 have experienced food insecurity. The research also found that 31% of children entitled to FSM have still not received any substitute, and of the families who have received substitutes, 12% have been unable to convert their Edenred e-code into a supermarket gift card.
This leads us to recommend that the Department for Education should establish a simple, centrally funded mechanism for ongoing provision of meals to pupils who cannot attend school. Funding for students entitled to FSM should be set at a level of £19.50 per pupil, per week (matching the offer to families in Wales). Schools should feel confident that they can claim for children in households who have applied for Universal Credit during this crisis, as well as children with no recourse to public funds.
We believe the funding should be paid directly to schools (or local authorities), so that they can use the funding flexibly to identify the best local solution for each pupil; this could be vouchers for a local supermarket, a cash-based transfer, or a holiday food and fun programme. Schools should be able to drawn down this funding through a simple monthly claim form, backed up by evidence available through the school census and attendance records.
Support through school holidays
Hunger does not recognise term time dates. And yet it was only after lobbying by civil society organisations that the voucher scheme was extended to include the Easter holidays. Unfortunately, the schools and caterers that continued to manage their own delivery of meals and food parcels during this time were not offered additional funding for this service, unless they applied for additional funding through the government’s ‘exceptional costs’ arrangements.
We are therefore greatly concerned that in response to written parliamentary questions, the Government has indicated there is no plan to maintain support for schools over half term. In light of the recent commitments to extend the Government’s Job Retention Scheme until October 2020, we do not understand why government would ignore the plight of children living in food insecure households and leave them at risk of hunger during the school holidays.
It is worth noting that on 22 April, the Welsh Government announced £33m funding for schools to maintain food programmes for both the May half-term and summer holidays. We continue to encourage the Department to cover the May half term holiday; but even If the Department matches the Welsh Government’s commitment for just the six-week summer holiday, this would be an investment of £152.1 million; based on 1.3 million children in England being eligible at the start of the crisis. Given the higher number of children now likely to be experiencing food insecurity as a result of the crisis, we estimate an investment of around £180m is required to cover every child in England.
The effect on disadvantaged groups, including the Department’s approach to free school meals and the long-term impact on the most vulnerable groups
Preparedness and communication
It has been clear neither the Government nor the Department for Education (DfE) were prepared for a rapid closure of schools, and the impact this would have on children receiving free school meals (FSM). In the early days of the crisis, DfE did not clearly convey to schools that they would continue to receive their full UIFSM funding, the free school meal per pupil allowance or the Pupil Premium grants. The Department did not stress that the preferred route of delivery should be via existing catering contracts until after the voucher scheme had been promoted on Twitter.
This left both schools and caterers with little assurance of where the money was going to come from to continue to provide school meals to those children who needed them. School Food Matters is aware that some catering operations took the opportunity at that early point in the crisis 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 which was 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 have been left feeling vulnerable.
National voucher scheme
On 31 March, DfE launched its national voucher scheme in partnership 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 normal FSM allowance (of £11.50 per week). They were also only available in England, as FSM is a matter for the devolved nations.
The scheme was launched with just six retail partners, which did not include Aldi, Lidl, or Co-op, or any 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. 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 registering 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; but this was charged at a premium rate, with schools incurring huge costs in trying to access the system or to check on progress with their applications (the helpline was eventually changed to a standard call rate after protests). 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.
We acknowledge DfE only intended the national voucher scheme to be a last resort option, for 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. As a result, the Edenred system was quickly overwhelmed with applications and was not able to quickly process the requests for vouchers.
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 all their mobile data as a direct result of their efforts. Those without internet or printing facilities at home are still at a disadvantage, and many rely on school staff redeeming vouchers on their behalf and printing them for parents to collect. There have even been several reports of parents successful in converting e-codes to vouchers, but who were then faced with the humiliation of having the vouchers rejected at some supermarket tills (see Appendix).
Finally, we do not understand why DfE did not set up a hotline for schools and parents. The Edenred line failed, and schools have reported that Edenred then issued a hotline number to MPs who were fielding calls from angry constituents. School Food Matters found itself advising heads and parents to contact their local MP in order to resolve issues, adding yet another level of complexity to the process.
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 shops other than those nearest to their homes, adding to overall risk to public health.
What contingency planning can be done to ensure the resilience of the sector in case of any future national emergency
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic created a crisis that has exposed flaws and weaknesses in our current system of providing school meals. As an organisation that values solutions-based thinking, we have been encouraged by the innovative and creative ways schools, local authorities, and civil society organisations have stepped up to support children who are in need.
However, councils are financially disadvantaged to do this and must make separate, additional applications to have their own voucher or payment schemes refunded by the Department for Education. Therefore, many schools and local authorities opted out of WONDE and reverted to Edenred, which then continued to be overwhelmed, often resulting in the website crashing.
When planning for future national emergencies, it is also possible to learn lessons from the approach taken by the devolved nations. We are aware that under the guidance published by the Welsh Government, all eligible children have been receiving the equivalent of £19.50 a week, which comes in the form of either: vouchers, the delivery of food items to families, or a direct bank transfer. The guidance also acknowledges that in order to address the needs of the most vulnerable children and families; local authorities may need to “operate a number of schemes in parallel”.
Children with ‘no recourse to public funds’
A combination of the Covid-19 crisis, long term campaigning by civil society and the result of a legal action brought by law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn has seen the government extend 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 are from households with “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF).
It has always been the position of School Food Matters that a child’s right to food at school should not depend on the migration status of their parents, so we welcome this change; but in a joint letter with Sustain to Secretary of State for Education on 30 April, we outlined some of our key concerns with this new policy. Firstly, 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, which families with NRPF are unable to claim. It is clear the extension of the eligibility to receive free school meals is not for all children with NRPF, just children who fit certain immigration categories, and many thousands of children in need still miss out. We are also concerned the support will be rescinded as soon as schools are open to all pupils, and more children will go hungry.
Appendix 1 - 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- 15 April 2020
“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 – 22 April 2020
“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 – 27 April 2020
Appendix 2 - Comments from Twitter