By Local Democracy Reporter Ciaran Duggan
Free school meals holiday provision for the county’s eligible pupils will not be extended next month, it has emerged.
The government says youngsters, from nursery age to sixth form, will not receive £15-a-week holiday food vouchers during the October half term. The vouchers had been issued through the pandemic to low-income households whose children are eligible for free school meals.
A government spokesman said: “Throughout the pandemic schools provided free school meals for eligible pupils, including while they were learning remotely. With pupils and students returning to face-face-education, normal school meal provision has resumed.
“We have been clear we will continue to support eligible pupils during the school term.”
Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford led a campaign to provide extra cash for families in June 2020, convincing the government to dish out vouchers in the summer holidays for 1.3 million children in England.
Kent County Council also provided food vouchers over the 2020 Christmas break to the families of children eligible to receive benefits-related Free School Meals.
Today (September 24), KCC’s Labour group has lobbied Whitehall to continue paying for free school meals holiday provision in October.
Cllr Barry Lewis (Lab), of Margate, said: “We can bail out the gas companies, but we can’t bail out the school children.”
Meanwhile, calls were made by Conservative county councillors to find much-needed support in Kent during an online KCC debate on Wednesday (September 22).
Cllr Paul Bartlett (Con), of Ashford Central, said: “On free school meals, I understand they have come to an end for the holidays and we are no longer providing them during the October half term.
“I wonder if there are any grants or sources of funding that you might find it possible to continue that?”
Maidstone County Hall’s administration said it was actively seeking to find new ways to help families, such as new government cash grant schemes or more support from local community groups.
Zena Cooke, KCC’s finance director, said: “We have checked with the government and colleagues in other local authorities and there has been confirmation there will be no further funding for free school meal provision outside the school term.
“We are looking locally to see what we can do to support families affected through alternative sources, such as Kent Support and Assistance Scheme and hardship relief schemes.”
In response, Whitehall says alternative welfare benefits are open to families, such as Universal Credit. However, claims can take up to five weeks to process by the Department for Work and Pensions.
The Department for Education’s (DfE) £220m Holiday Activities and Food (HAF) programme has provided healthy food for the poorest pupils during the Easter and summer holidays.
The scheme will be extended to every local authority in England in December 2021, the DfE says.
A spokesman added: “Outside of term-time, families in England have benefited from billions of investment in welfare support, and our HAF programme will also continue this Christmas to provide enriching activities and healthy meals.”