school children lunch

Campaigners hoped schools would continue to provide meals

Retailers, campaigners and MPs have expressed “grave concern” that the supermarkets’ takeover of free school meals is leaving many of the UK’s most vulnerable children underfed.

There has been widespread frustration with the government scheme that provides supermarket vouchers for children eligible for free school meals during lockdown, with many families unable to access vouchers due to IT errors with Edenred, the chosen supplier.

The vouchers can be spent at the big four supermarkets, as well as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. Aldi joined the scheme on Tuesday. But the decision to use only the biggest retailers is leaving many parents struggling to benefit.

“Lots of people are really angry that DfE [Department for Education] has defaulted to the big six supermarkets, two of which are really irrelevant when it comes to families on low income: Marks & Sparks and Waitrose,” said Stephanie Wood, CEO at School Food Matters.

The charity is lobbying government to extend the scheme to smaller convenience stores “because those are more relevant to the families we want to reach” said Wood. Many stores, however lack the necessary e-voucher facilities.

“It’s a double whammy because it’s disadvantaging the disadvantaged,” said Andy Higgs, headteacher at Bucklebury Primary School in West Berkshire.

“This isn’t directly life or death, but it’s a contributing factor because what we’re doing is punishing people who are already the hardest hit.”

The Co-op said it was frustrated with its exclusion from the national scheme, following its launch of an independent voucher system for students at its own academies.

“We have written to the Secretary of State to express grave concern over the nationwide voucher scheme for children in receipt of free school meals,” said a Co-op spokeswoman.

The government “did not include the Co-op despite our repeated requests to be a part of it and despite us offering our help in developing a national scheme”.

Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh said “the issue is that the government commissioned a system on the basis of e-gift cards to supermarkets which automatically excluded Aldi, Lidl, and the Co-op and convenience stores”.

Many families did not have access to a supermarket, she said, but relied instead on small local retailers for food. A 2018 study by the Social Market Foundation found that more than a million people in the UK live in “food deserts” with limited access to fresh fruit & vegetables due to the lack of supermarkets.

Claire Pritchard, chair of the London Food Board, said she originally “hoped that schools would keep making the food because we know the school food standards typically are pretty good, healthy meals and for a lot of children are the best meal they have in the day”.

However, parents’ concerns over their children going to school necessitated the need for a voucher scheme, she said.

Food vouchers should therefore be assessed using the same nutritional standards that apply to school meals, claimed Tim Lang, professor of Food Policy at City University. Supermarket vouchers were currently only blocked from use on age-restricted items, such as alcohol, cigarettes or lottery tickets.

“This is inappropriate not to take nutrition seriously,” said Lang, who is calling on retailers to introduce nutritional support immediately.

“This is not in their interest to be tarred with the brush of serving an inappropriate nutritional mix of food in the name of the school meal replacement voucher.”