Councils across England are ‘quietly’ canceling holiday food voucher schemes for children who eat free school meals, leaving many families desperate during this half-term, teachers and charities warn.
it takes Huge public campaignled by Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford, to force Boris Johnson to make a switch in November 2020 on feeding children of low-income families during school holidays.
But the government said it was now up to individual councils whether they would continue to offer vouchers worth £15 a week. It has been dropped by local authorities including Reading, York, Wakefield, Stoke-on-Trent, Leeds and Birmingham. Experts say parents are facing a zip code lottery for help.
Emma Cantrell, founder of First Days, a charity that tackles child poverty in Berkshire, said: “Without a doubt, there have been parents who have not been able to put food on the table during this half term, and children will go back to school hungry on Mondays.”
Cantrell works with a group that distributes surplus food, and he said they “swept families desperate for anything this week.” Her charity administers children’s vouchers on behalf of Wokingham Council. However, neighboring Reading has dropped the scheme.
“There is a path where children from different sides get completely different support, with the help of one family and no help from another,” she said.
Cantrell, whose charity distributes free beds and clothes to struggling families, said demand for help has doubled in the past six months and she now regularly sees children who are “clearly malnourished”.
She added, “The boards will look like bad guys [for cutting vouchers], but this is a result of changes by the government. It’s done incredibly quietly, so most people don’t even know it’s happening.”
In 2020, Rashford called on the government to extend the £15 free school meal vouchers – which were initially set up to feed children in the classroom when schools closed due to the pandemic – on holidays.
Ahead of both the summer and Christmas holidays, Johnson and his adviser Rishi Sunak dug their heels in and refused, only to be forced into a humiliating turn each time, following waves of criticism from charities, the media, Labor and some Conservative MPs. .
Holiday voucher funding in England must now come off the boards family support fundsubmitted by the government in October of last year.
A spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions said: “Followed recently by £421m, the fund is allowing councils – who know their areas best – to target support to those most in need, including providing additional support during school holidays.”
Councils that cut the vouchers say child support for free school meals is still available via other schemes, but they have been using up much of their share of the Family Support Fund, which is supposed to help people across the community.
A spokesperson for the Reading Council said it “combines food and energy subsidies into a single cost-of-living voucher,” targeting the poorest families and the elderly.
Ann Longfield, Chair of the Youth Life Committee and former Children’s Commissioner, told observer She was “really concerned” that “more and more councils” are withdrawing food support for the poorest families.
“Families in some areas are left high and dry,” she said. “These vouchers may be small, but they can prevent extreme poverty.”
She called on the government to recognize the growing number of poor families, adding: “This is not a personal issue. It is a national crisis that must be discussed along with reassuring the markets.”
Johnny Otley, chief executive of Education Alliance Academy, which operates seven schools in Hull and East Riding of Yorkshire, said: “Wakefield Council has told us they can’t afford vouchers. It’s just a fortune pot. If you live in Hull you get £15 but in the authorities Others will get nothing.”
Although she’s facing significant financial pressure herself, the fund is now paying for vouchers from its own reserves so the kids don’t get hungry on holidays.
“It cannot be right that families receiving financial support to ensure children are fed properly during the holidays depends on where they live,” said James Bowen, director of policy for the NAHT School Leaders Association. “We know that some children depend on the school for their only sure meal of the day,” he added.
A single mother in Leeds with two boys receiving free school meals, who asked not to be named, said: “The voucher paid for most of the food for a week, and we used to have it. But suddenly it’s not like that anymore.”
That’s half the time she had to borrow money from her parents to feed her children. “Most politicians have never had to worry about whether they can buy food for the week,” she said. “I don’t think they understand and I don’t think they care.”
A Leeds City Council spokesman said they would still be providing free meals as part of a healthy holiday activities program at Christmas this year, but that their share of the Family Support Fund would “prioritize fuel subsidies” this winter.
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