By Local Democracy Reporter Cairan Duggan
Kent’s poorest children must receive adequate food provision throughout the school summer months, a county councillor says.
Thousands of youngsters from low-income UK families have become reliant on free school meals for their daily nutrition amid the Covid lockdown, but the Government-led scheme has received major criticism.
At least 24 Kent schools have been unable to obtain free school meal vouchers online during the pandemic, according to Kent County Council (KCC).
KCC’s Liberal Democrat education spokesman, Cllr Trudy Dean, said: “Some schools are having to spend money on food rather than education and that should not happen.
“This is something that KCC needs to get a grip on as the local education authority.”
KCC’s cabinet member for education, Cllr Richard Long (Con), says County Hall has been working with three catering suppliers to ensure daily meals are provided to vulnerable youngsters and children of key workers who have been attending school during the public health emergency.
Speaking during a KCC full council meeting yesterday, he said: “KCC has paid 100% of the cost of free school meals based on the numbers of meals served over the preceding three months.
“For those children who have not attended, schools have made a packed lunch available for collection or arrangered for the use of food parcels or ‘hampers’, or vouchers either through Edenred or another provider. Many parents have preferred to receive a voucher.”
The national free school meal scheme is offered to the UK’s poorest families. They are issued with either an electronic voucher or gift card worth £15 each week per pupil, to spend at shops including Sainsbury’s, Asda, Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S.
The Department for Education’s official contractor, Edenred, runs an online portal which schools access to obtain meal vouchers. An ‘eCode’ is then sent directly to the parents, who can choose food from a range of supermarkets.
Around 400 Kent schools have been able to access vouchers from Edenred at least once, but many have struggled to log onto the site, some have received invalid codes while others face delays in receiving the meal vouchers.
KCC’s education cabinet member added: “There have been well publicised difficulties with the roll out of this scheme.”
On Wednesday, Boris Johnson’s Government said the school meal scheme would be extended through the summer holidays and 1.3million children in England will be eligible. This was a U turn prompted because of a high-profile campaign by Premier League striker Marcus Rashford.
A £120m Covid summer food fund will now offer six-week food vouchers to children eligible for free school meals in England during the holidays.
KCC’s main opposition leader, Cllr Rob Bird (Lib Dem), said: “I suspect if some members of the Government had showed the same level of compassion, commitment and common sense as footballers like Rashford then we would be in a much better place.”
Margate county council representative Barry Lewis said the free meals schyeme is vital in Thanet with some schools providing free meals for up to 40% of pupils.
Cllr Lewis, who is a co-founder of the Summer Kitchen free meals project with Sharon Goodyer, said: “I am delighted that there has been recognition by the government that they need to help children, including those in Thanet, to be fed properly during the summer holidays..”
The Summer Kitchen is unable to run this year due to the social distancing requirements needed to reduce the spread of coronavirus.