SCHOOL children will continue to get free school meal vouchers during lockdown but the support won't continue in the February half term.
Free school meal vouchers returned from January 18 following criticism over "unacceptable" food parcels sent to parents.
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But ministers have been slammed after the Department of Education said schools don't need to dole out the vouchers during half term in February.
Instead, parents will have to go to their local council to access free school meals through the Covid Winter Grant scheme.
The scheme is worth £170million with at least 80% of the cash earmarked to give support with food and essential utility costs until the end of March.
But there is no guarantee it will meet the £15 per head voucher as is the case in term time.
How can I apply for free school meal vouchers?
HOW you claim the free school meals depends on where you live.
For example, you can either get a form to fill in from your school, call your local council or fill in an online form.
Start by entering your postcode into the Gov.uk website to see what the process is in your area.
There’s a different process if you live in Northern Ireland, Scotland, or Wales.
It's worth pointing out that if you claim housing benefit or council tax support you can apply for free school meals when you are filling out your forms.
It follows backlash after photos of meagre food packages received by low-income families were shared by football legend Marcus Rashford.
The Manchester United ace – who forced the government into a U-turn on feeding the UK's most vulnerable kids during previous lockdowns – spoke to Boris Johnson to call for an investigation into the food given to poor families.
And the PM told MPs: "It is a scandal and a disgrace that some companies are trying to get away with the provision they are offering."
Primary and secondary schools have now closed until at least February half term, after some opened for just one day following the Christmas break.
They will only stay open for vulnerable children and the children of key workers. Nurseries are allowed to stay open as usual.
GCSE and A Level exams in the summer have also been cancelled – they'll be replaced by teacher assessments instead.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told a committee of MPs that he had been “absolutely disgusted” by the packages.
According to campaign group Food Foundation, around 200,000 UK kids skipped meals during the first coronavirus lockdown because they didn't have enough food.
Here we take you through everything you need to know about claiming free school meals and vouchers during England's third lockdown.
How do I get free school meals or vouchers?
Families of children who usually qualify for free school meals are eligible for either supermarket or local shop vouchers, or food or meals sent to their home.
Similar to previous lockdowns, it is up to the schools to decide which form of support is offered.
The voucher scheme restarted on January 18 following backlash over some food parcels.
The weekly vouchers are worth £15, which is above the £11.50 currently paid to schools per pupil for the cost of providing free meals.
Like with the previous voucher schemes, the Department for Education has confirmed it's working with Edenred UK to supply the gift cards.
As per the old voucher schemes, schools are required to contact Edenred.
Once the vouchers have been confirmed, schools should then be able to send e-gift cards to eligible families.
The vouchers can be spent in the following supermarkets:
- Company Shop Group
Schools can also purchase vouchers from other supermarkets and claim back the costs.
Alternatively, schools can send out food to children using their regular in-house catering team, a local meal delivery service or private catering provider.
Schools will have their costs covered by the DfE.
If your kids qualify for free school meals, your school can claim up to £3.50 per eligible pupil a week, on top of their usual funding, to provide food parcels.
The government is urging schools to use this approach wherever possible.
What should food parcels contain?
According to government guidance, the food parcels should:
- contain food items rather than pre-prepared meals due to food safety considerations
- minimise the fridge and freezer space that schools and families will need to store foods
- contain items which parents can use to prepare healthy lunches for their child/children across the week
- not rely on parents having additional ingredients at home to prepare meals
- not contain items restricted under the school food standards
- cater for pupils who require special diets, for example, allergies, vegetarians or religious diets – schools should ensure there are systems in place to avoid cross-contamination
- contain appropriate packaging sizes for household use, rather than wholesale sizes
Which children are eligible for free school meals?
Eligibility for free school meals varies slightly between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland because the nations set their own rules.
But you may be able to claim free school meals for your child if you, or your child, get any of the following benefits:
- Income support
- Income-based jobseeker’s allowance
- Income-related employment and support allowance
- Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
- The guaranteed element of pension credit
- Child tax credit (provided you’re not also entitled to working tax credit and have an annual income of no more than £16,190)
- Working tax credit run-on – paid for four weeks after you stop qualifying for working tax credit
- Universal Credit – if you applied on or after April 1, 2018, your household income is less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including any benefits you get)
If you qualify, kids get the support from nursery age through to sixth form.
Separately, in England all pupils in reception and year's one and two, regardless of income, can get free school meals during term time in state schools.
In Scotland, children in primary, year's one, two and three can claim free school meals regardless of family income.
Use the relevant government tools online – in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales – to check if you can get free school meals.
Can children get free school meals during the holidays?
Children who are entitled to free school meals during term time can now claim them during the holidays.
A £170million winter grant scheme was launched at the end of 2020 to cover free meals during the school holidays until March 2021.
That means you will be able to access vouchers for meals during the February half term break.
An extra £220million will also be available this year to provide holiday activities and free meals for kids throughout the Easter, summer and Christmas breaks in 2021.
What other help is there?
Parents or soon-to-be mums on a low income or certain benefits are entitled to extra help towards the cost of feeding their child.
Families with children under four-years-old may be entitled to a weekly Healthy Start Voucher.
Currently, they are worth £3.10 a week but will rise to £4.25 from April 2021.
They can be spent in supermarkets, corner shops, greengrocers, market stalls, pharmacies, food co-ops and milk floats or vans.
You can find your nearest shops that accept them using the Healthy Start tool on its website.
As of January 4, Lidl tops up the value of the vouchers by £1.15 to £4.25, three months ahead of a government increase.
Households struggling to put meals on the table maybe able to get help from a local food bank.
You normally need a referral from a charity, doctor or support worker to access a food bank.
Visit Citizens Advice for more information on this; the charity itself can also provide referrals.
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