Covid: What free school meals are children supposed to get?

By Eleanor Lawrie
BBC News

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During lockdown, children eligible for free school meals can still receive them - in the form of a shopping voucher or food parcel.

But concerns have been raised about the standard of some food parcels, with footballer and meals campaigner Marcus Rashford suggesting they were "just not good enough".

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he was "absolutely disgusted" with images of food parcels circulating on social media, and said a national supermarket voucher scheme would reopen on Monday.

What are children supposed to get in lockdown?

Schools must provide food for pupils attending in person if they normally qualify for free school meals.

If they are at home, they can receive food parcels or vouchers during term time.

In England, schools are "strongly encouraged" to send food parcels rather than vouchers. Schools using this option get an extra £3.50 per week per child, on top of the funding they usually receive for free school meals in term time.

The government says these parcels should:

  • contain food items rather than pre-prepared meals
  • minimise fridge and freezer space needed
  • contain items which parents can use to prepare healthy lunches
  • not rely on parents having extra ingredients at home to prepare meals
  • not contain items restricted under school food standards
  • cater for special diets where necessary including allergies, vegetarians or religious diets
  • contain food packaged in household rather than wholesale sizes

If schools can't offer food parcels they can consider "other local arrangements," including vouchers for shops and supermarkets.

Schools can claim back up to £15 per pupil per week for these vouchers, on top of their usual free school meals funding.

The national voucher scheme will reopen on 18 January and provide supermarket vouchers through an online portal.

Why is Marcus Rashford not happy about the free school meals policy?

Marcus Rashford, who campaigned for free school meals to be provided during holidays, has now raised concerns about the quality of food parcels during lockdown.

He said the amount of food sent out to children was "unacceptable" after pictures posted on Twitter suggested food parcels worth about £5 were supposed to last for 10 days.

The prime minister's official spokesman said the food parcels should contain "food that parents can use to make healthy lunches throughout the week". One supplier said it would refund costs for deliveries that did not meet its standards, and added that the new £3.50 extra funding per pupil had not yet taken effect.

Laca, a body that represents 550 catering managers across schools, local authorities and private contractors, says it is "disappointed" with the pictures of food parcels circulating on Twitter, which "simply do not meet the standards".

It says its guidance clearly states the parcels should be nutritionally balanced and include a range of ingredients to provide one meal for one child every day for five days.

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image captionEngland and Manchester United star Marcus Rashford

What happens in the holidays?

Mr Rashford, who relied on free school meals in his childhood, previously led a campaign for the government to provide vouchers during school holidays.

The footballer and others successfully called for the voucher scheme to be extended until Easter and Christmas holidays too, after MPs voted against the move.

But the government in England says schools will not provide food parcels or vouchers over the February half term. Instead, it says those in need will be provided for through the £170m Covid Winter Grant fund, which helps families with the cost of essentials such as food, energy and water bills.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said this would mean "yet more disruption to free schools meals could lie ahead in half term".

Which children get free school meals?

Free school meals have been at least partially funded by the government for more than a century, because of concerns about malnourishment and children being too hungry to concentrate during lessons.

Children of all ages - from nursery to sixth form - may be eligible if they live in households receiving income-related benefits, including:

  • Income support
  • Income-based jobseeker's allowance
  • Income-related employment and support allowance
  • Universal credit

Eligibility varies slightly between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland because the nations set their own rules.

New claims made in England must come from households earning a maximum income of £7,400 a year after tax, not including any benefits. It's the same in Scotland and Wales, but in Northern Ireland the household income threshold is £14,000.

In England and Scotland, all infant state school pupils (those in Reception and in Years 1 and 2) can get free school meals during term time.

If a child qualifies for school meals, they remain eligible until they finish the phase of school they're in as of 31 March 2022, whether primary or secondary.

During the pandemic, free school meals have been extended to some children of groups with no recourse to public funds, if their household income is below a certain amount.

How many children get free school meals?

In England, about 1.4 million children claimed for free school meals in January 2020 - 17.3% of state-educated pupils.

The take-up was greatest in the north-east of England (23.5%), followed by the West Midlands (20.5%) and the north-west of England (20.2%).

Analysis by the Food Foundation estimates a further 900,000 children in England may have sought free school meals since the start of the pandemic.

In recent years, free school meals have been linked to lowering obesity levels, and boosting academic achievement for poorer pupils.