Providing free school meals during lockdown

Schools are expected to provide eligible pupils with free school meals when they're self-isolating or during school closure. Bethany Eadie, content producer at The Key, outlines the options available to schools and provides some tips on what you can do to make sure the most vulnerable families in your school community are getting the support they need.

DfE recommendations

The Department for Education (DfE) recommends three options to make sure you can provide lunch to eligible children. These are; contact your existing catering service and find out if they can prepare meals, give out supermarket vouchers (using the national scheme) or use local initiatives like community hubs or charities. We’ll explore each of these options below. 

Funding will be available to compensate for costs not covered by the national voucher scheme, such as costs arising from providing meals before the national voucher scheme was introduced. Or costs from where you're providing meals to pupils for whom the national voucher scheme is inappropriate, such as if there are no participating supermarkets locally or if you're providing meals directly to pupils. 

Using your existing catering service and create a 'take-away' or delivery service

If it's safe and practical to do so, your school kitchen could stay open and prepare lunches in paper bags as you normally would for FSM-eligible pupils going on school trips. Parents can collect these from school, or you can create a collection point just outside school or in your playground. Stagger collection times throughout the day (e.g. year 1: 9-10am, year 2: 10-11am, etc.). Alternatively, if it's possible, you could organise a delivery service. 

Using the national voucher system

The government recently launched its voucher scheme for schools providing free school meals. The scheme is run using the Edenred portal. You should've received an activation email from Edenred through the email address the DfE holds for your school. Once you've activated your account, you'll be able to create vouchers using the step-by-step guide. For each eligible child, you'll be able to order either a single £15 voucher each week or a weekly £15 rolling voucher. You can also combine funding where a family has more than one child eligible.

Once you've confirmed the voucher's value, you have two options. You can either send an 'eCode' directly to parents, they can then choose an eGift card from a range of supermarkets). Or you can select an eGift card on the parents' behalf, and print and post the card to them – you’ll need to check which supermarket they use.

Consider whether your parents can access the internet when deciding which option to take. If you’re not sure, get in touch with them.

Using local initiatives

Consider contacting your local food bank - you can find your local food bank through the Trussell Trust and get in touch with it directly. The food bank will be able to offer you a number of food bank vouchers to give to your most vulnerable families, on a case-by-case basis. Please be aware that food banks are facing unprecedented demand at this time, so they may be slower than usual to respond. If you aren't able to access vouchers because of this, make sure all parents are aware of the closest food bank(s) in your area. 

You can also get in touch with local charities who can help. Many charities are stepping up their provision in light of the impact of coronavirus on vulnerable families. Share details of these charities with your families or get in touch with them directly. Some organisations, such as Street Games Fit and Fed and FareShare, work in a range of locations. 

Warn families about email and telephone scams

Make sure you tell families to watch out for scams exploiting the coronavirus pandemic. For example,  emails asking parents for bank details because they qualify for FSM or phone calls purporting to be official bodies (such as HMRC, Sky, BT, etc.) asking for bank details. Citizens Advice has information on how to check if something is a scam. 

Expectations over the Easter holidays

Schools are expected to provide free school meals for eligible pupils not attending school over the Easter holidays. You'll receive compensation for this if you're using vouchers (the national voucher system will continue to operate over Easter) or if you're using a supplier, you'll be compensated, at a later date, up to £15 per eligible pupil for the costs incurred. The guidance doesn't specify, but we'd expect this to be £15 for each week to match up with the cost of vouchers. 

Think about which other pupils are most at risk of going without food

There might be other families in your school community who are close to living in poverty. They might be impacted significantly over the coming months by self-isolation or changes in economic circumstances as a result of coronavirus. Be aware of who these families are in case you're able to help them further. You won't be able to offer them vouchers via the national system, but you may want to provide them with meals through your existing catering systems or put them in touch with local initiatives.

Bethany Eadie is a content producer at The Key, a provider of up-to-the-minute sector intelligence and resources that empower education leaders with the knowledge to act. The Key has created a coronavirus hub filled with practical advice and resources to help schools every step of the way as the situation evolves.