Ministers are braced for a fresh free school meals row after the Department for Education said lunches will not be provided during February half-term.
New official guidance said that from Monday schools will be able to take part in the national voucher scheme – where families receive £15 worth of vouchers per week to spend in supermarkets on their child’s lunch – instead of sending food parcels to deprived households.
But the guidance added that schools do not need to provide either food parcels or vouchers for children during February half-term since “wider Government support” is already in place during school holidays, in particular the Covid Winter Grant Scheme (CWGS).
It prompted a backlash among teachers unions – as well as council chiefs and Labour – who said it is “simply astonishing” that ministers are “once again” showing “total disregard for those hardest hit” by the pandemic.
It came after Downing Street ordered an urgent investigation earlier this week when a mother published a photograph of her child’s meagre looking food delivery on Twitter, prompting a storm of criticism.
Boris Johnson said on Wednesday that food packages sent to disadvantaged children were a “scandal and a disgrace” and the government about-turned on its previous recommendation for schools to distribute parcels instead of vouchers.
Launching a review of the supply chain, the Prime Minister said that the packages sent to pupils on free school meals were appalling and an “insult to the families that have received them”.
Last year, the Government performed a major U-turn on free school meals when it agreed to provide lunches for pupils over the summer break following a campaign spearheaded by the England football striker turned food poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford.
In November, ministers launched the CWGS, a £170 million pot of ring-fenced funding for councils to spend on the poorest families, with at least 80% earmarked to support with food and essential utility costs. The funding was intended to cover the period to the end of March 2021.
But Cllr Richard Watts of the Local Government Association said the CWGS was not intended to replace free school meals, adding that it was to “enable councils to support low income households, particularly those at risk of food poverty as we moved towards economic recovery.
“Government should provide food vouchers to eligible families during February half-term as it did last summer, with councils using CWGS funding to provide additional support with partners where necessary,” he said.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “After a year in which the stark inequalities faced by millions of children and young people has been at the forefront of the minds of the public, the ugly spectre of holiday hunger is now looming yet again.”
He said that ministers’ outrage over inadequate food parcels is “put in the shade by today’s confirmation that yet more disruption to free schools meals could lie ahead in half term”, adding: “These are battles which should not have to be repeatedly fought.”
Tulip Siddiq MP, the Shadow Children’s Minister, said that failing to provide meals during half-term will have a “devastating” effect on struggling families.
“The Prime Minister’s claim to be morally outraged at images of woefully inadequate food parcels will ring hollow for parents who are worried about whether they will be able to put food on the table for their children over half-term,” she said.
On Thursday night, Rashford led a coalition of charities and campaigners in writing to the Prime Minister calling for an urgent review of free school meals.
Signatories of the letter, which included the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and over 40 charity and education leaders, said the eligibility criteria should be overhauled to ensure uniformity across the UK.
A Government spokesperson said: “As was the case over Christmas, vulnerable families will continue to receive meals and other essentials over February half term via councils through the £170 million Covid Winter Grant Scheme launched last year.
"Schools provide free school meals for eligible pupils during term time. Beyond that, there is wider government support in place to support families and children via the billions of pounds in welfare support we’ve made available."