Supermarket voucher scheme to provide free school meals in Herts this winter

County councillors approved the scheme on Thursday

Friday, 27th November 2020, 9:00 am
Updated Friday, 27th November 2020, 9:04 am

Struggling Hertfordshire families with children who are eligible for free school meals are to receive a £30 supermarket voucher over the Christmas holidays.

The vouchers will be distributed – in digital or paper form – through schools during the last week of the autumn term.

And they are to be funded through the county council’s £2.49m share of the government’s ‘covid winter grant scheme’.

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The government set out the ‘covid winter grant scheme’ to ensure children and vulnerable households do not go hungry over the Christmas and February half-term holidays.

And it was announced earlier this month, in the wake of national calls – led by England footballer Marcus Rashford – to extend the free school meals scheme into the holidays.

Since then officers at the county council have been considering how best it could be used to support struggling families.

And on Thursday, November 26, a meeting of the cabinet approved a scheme that will make more than 22,000 supermarket vouchers available across the county.

Vouchers worth £30 will be distributed to families of those children who are eligible for benefits-related free school meals during the last week of the school term.

And then there will be a further £15 voucher available for parents in advance of the February half-term break too.

According to the proposals, the digital vouchers will be distributed to schools – who will then be able to forward them on to eligible parents.

And where parents do not have access to an email address or a printer, schools will be expected to help.

Parents of children in Key Stage One who receive universal free school meals will not qualify for the vouchers, which will be accepted at the four largest supermarket chains – Asda, Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s and Tesco.

At the meeting of the cabinet, deputy council leader and executive member for children, young people and families Cllr Teresa Heritage praised the “tremendous job” done by officers to set up the voucher scheme.

And following the meeting, she said: “I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to agree an approach that will ensure we can deliver this vital scheme.

“At this difficult time, it is essential that our hardest-hit families have access to food and other help when it is needed, especially over the festive period.”

Earlier in the day, the scheme has also been considered by a joint meeting of the county council’s children young people and families and the education, libraries and localism cabinet panels.

At that meeting councillors from all political parties praised the work of council officers in drawing up the scheme at pace.

However, there were concerns raised about the limited range of supermarkets included in the Hertfordshire scheme, access to the scheme for children educated ‘out of county’ or at home and the stress it would put on schools.

Commenting on the pressure the scheme would put on schools, former teacher Cllr Anthony Rowlands said: “I know the last two or three weeks of the autumn term are amongst the most challenging for all schools.

“So we are asking then to do something else at a time when they are already going to be very weary – but I am sure they will rise to the challenge.”

Operations director Simon Newland acknowledged they were “really concerned” about the workload faced by schools.

He said: “Schools are really feeling the strain, as I am sure we all appreciate. But they, in general, are equally committed to what we are trying to do, in terms of supporting their vulnerable families.”

However where schools ‘can’t manage’, councillors were later assured there would be alternative back-up measures that can be used.

Cllr Jeff Jones was among those who asked whether the range of supermarkets could be extended, to best serve all areas in the county.

But councillors were told this was not possible at this stage and that the supermarkets were limited by the Family Food Trust, who will operate the scheme in conjunction with the council.

It was recognised that providing vouchers for children that were educated at schools out of the county would be “particularly tricky”.

But councillors were told there was ongoing work to determine if there could be reciprocal arrangements with neighbouring councils.

This issue was highlighted by Liberal Democrat Cllr Mark Watkin and by Conservative Cllr Dee Hart, who pointed to children from Waltham Cross who attended schools over the border in Essex or Enfield.

The recommendations for the voucher scheme were backed unanimously by the meeting of both cabinet panels.

However, Labour amendments calling for the cabinet to lobby government for additional support for children eligible to claim free school meals until the end of 2021 was defeated.