free school meals

The government’s national free school meals voucher scheme will relaunch next Monday and be run by original supplier Edenred – with schools now given the freedom to provide food in whatever way they see fit.

Ministers announced their intention to restart the voucher programme last week, but did not confirm details until today. The scheme ran through the first lockdown and various school holidays last year, offering supermarket vouchers worth £15 a week for each child eligible for free school meals.

Guidance issued last week had told schools to first work with caterers under a “food parcel first approach” to replace free school meals for children at home. Only where this was not possible could schools then use vouchers instead.

But today’s new guidance says schools “have the freedom to decide on the best approach for their pupils and have a range of options which include lunch parcels, local vouchers or the…national voucher scheme”.

It follows national outrage after parents this week shared images on social media of pitiful food parcels they had been sent from catering providers. One parcel had food worth just half as much as caterers had charged to provide it.

Despite this, however, the government’s new guidance still “strongly encourages” schools to use food parcels rather than vouchers.

Edenred, the firm which ran the national voucher programme last year, has been tasked with running it again during this period of partial closures. The company is expected to email all schools by tomorrow (January 14) with details of how to reset passwords or activate new accounts if they have not used the scheme before.

“Once you have done this, you will receive an email confirming when you can begin to order vouchers during the week commencing January 18,” DfE guidance adds.

Schools will be able to order a single voucher covering multiple weeks. They will also be able to order a single voucher to cover more than one eligible child within the same household, or set a “weekly £15 rolling voucher”, up to the week-beginning February 8, which for many schools is the last week before half term.

Schools can claim back cost of own schemes

The scheme is reopening almost two weeks after partial school closures were enacted by the government, but schools have had a responsibility to keep feeding eligible children at home since last Tuesday.

Schools can claim back the cost of “any support provided since January 4”, including lunch parcels or locally-arranged vouchers.

The government also announced today that schools can claim retrospectively for a locally arranged voucher where parents have “received an inadequate lunch parcel that does not meet the standard expected”.

Under the national free school meals voucher scheme, schools are being advised to submit “one spreadsheet to order eCodes for all eligible families wherever possible”. This is to ensure vouchers are processed in a “timely manner”.

It comes after the original launch of the scheme last spring was beset with delays and technical issues, which left some pupils without food in the early weeks of the programme.

Once the value of vouchers requested has been confirmed, schools can either send an eCode directly to families, who can then choose an eGift card from a “range of supermarkets”, or select eGift cards on families’ behalf.

eGift cards will be available for Aldi, Iceland, McColl’s, Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Waitrose, M&S and Company Shop Group.

The DfE has also said that on top of their usual funding for free school meals throughout this period, schools will be able to claim an additional £3.50 per pupil per week where lunches are being provided, and up to £15 per eligible pupil per week where vouchers for local shops are being given out.

However, schools “should only claim for one of these approaches for each week”. Further details on how and when additional costs can be reclaimed “will be provided shortly”.