Coronavirus: Barking and Dagenham education chief urges government to make free school meals scheme cheaper for families

Cllr Evelyn Carpenter. Picture: LBBD/Andreas Grieger

Cllr Evelyn Carpenter. Picture: LBBD/Andreas Grieger - Credit: Archant

The government has extended a voucher scheme to provide children free school meals over Easter.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Education secretary Gavin Williamson. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

It comes after Cllr Evelyn Carpenter, Barking and Dagenham Council’s education cabinet chief, joined counterparts from 17 London town halls to urge Westminster to include discount supermarkets and local shops as part of arrangements prompted by the coronavirus.

In a letter to education secretary, Gavin Williamson MP, they write: “We are especially concerned at the exclusion of value-for-money stores such as Lidl and Aldi, and local food shops.

“Families eligible for free school meals are more likely to shop at stores such as Lidl or Aldi, rather than costlier stores such as M&S or Waitrose.”

The Department for Education announced on March 31 that every eligible child would be provided with a £15 voucher redeemable at Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S which allowed them to still get meals while schools remain closed because of the coronavirus.

Schools provide the vouchers electronically, or as a gift card for families without internet access, with a code used to redeem them.

But in the letter town hall chiefs argue eligible families are more likely to shop or live nearer a Lidl or Aldi with shopping at “costlier stores” such as Waitrose and M&S meaning people having potentially further to travel.

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They also want local shops to benefit from the vouchers as one way of supporting smaller businesses and for parents to access them with a phone number rather than an email

The letter also urges the government to make clear how it will reimburse schools and ask that it continues to pay for free school meals during the Easter holidays.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Our focus is making sure that the 1.3 million disadvantaged children who would normally have a free school meal do not go hungry as a result of staying home to protect the NHS and save lives.

“We are providing schools with continued funding for free school meals and have launched a national voucher scheme, backed by additional government funding, to make sure all eligible children can still benefit.

Many schools also have local arrangements in place.”