Families fear being 'left with zero' if school meal scheme ends

By Judith Burns
Education reporter

  • Published
Close up school dinner counterImage source, Getty Images

Marcus Rashford's plea to the government to reverse its decision not to continue funding free school meals over the long summer break, has struck a chord with parents who have been relying on food vouchers to feed their families during lockdown.

On Monday, in response to the footballer's letter, the government confirmed that its voucher scheme in England would "not run during the summer holidays".

But families have told the BBC it will prove very difficult for them when food vouchers, worth £15 per child per week, stop at the end of term.

In Leicester, 15-year-old Dev says he and his 13-year-old brother would be eating poorer quality food without the vouchers.

His parents would have to rely on "cheap, cheap meals - the type that make you full for about an hour", he says.

"Unfortunately unhealthy food is the cheapest - food that you shouldn't really be feeding kids."

Image source, Bite Back 2030
Image caption,
Dev, 15, from Leicester says the vouchers mean he and his younger brother eat more healthily

Dev is a member of the Bite Back youth campaign for better nutrition for young people whose petition to extend free school meal vouchers over the summer has more than 250,000 signatures.

He argues that if the UK wants to fight inequality and help his generation achieve their best for the country, all children - whether rich or poor - need access to nutritious food.

In Brent, north London, Susan Bleau, is considering sending her 11-year-old daughter to stay with her ex-partner's family in Birmingham, if there are no free school meals vouchers over the summer.

Her daughter's primary school has helped her access vouchers from the government scheme and the school has been delivering food parcels every Friday.

Susan has just returned to her part-time job having been furloughed since March - but the knock-on effect of a 20% cut in income under furlough has left her finances stretched.

If the food voucher scheme isn't extended over the summer, she says: "I would have to get some form of help".

Fortunately she and her daughter get on well with their extended family, who can support them.

"They're better off than me - but I need to check what their plans are for the summer," says Susan.

Image source, Jane Keen-Smith
Image caption,
Hairdresser Jane Keen-Smith has been unable to work during the lockdown because of health issues in the family

In Pershore, Worcestershire, Jane Keen-Smith, a mother of four boys and a self-employed hairdresser has seen her livelihood collapse during the lockdown.

Underlying health conditions in the family - one son is severely disabled - mean she will be unable to work even once hairdressers are allowed to return next month.

She told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme that having the vouchers continue over the summer would be "a huge help".

Both women struggled at first to redeem the vouchers - but the scheme is currently working well, they say.

'Left with zero'

"I get the £60 a week for them... It makes a massive difference," says Jane.

Unless the government changes its plans, the prospect of not being able to work and not having the vouchers throughout the summer is daunting.

"I'll have no income and we'll have no free school meal vouchers so it's going to make us stuck really because we're in a position that we've never been in before," says Jane.

"And so then we're left with zero, so we don't know what we're going to do."

She has had some help from friends and family during lockdown but teenage boys are "bottomless hunger pits" she says - so her budget is extremely tight.

"We're basically struggling with everything."

"We're stuck in this position and we don't know how long it's going to be for," Jane says.

The continuation of the scheme over the Easter holiday and half term was an enormous help, she says, but is worried at the prospect of being without it over the six-week summer break.

"It's going to be very difficult," she says.