Summer free school meal U-turn will benefit almost 14,000 in Norfolk
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Thousands of Norfolk parents whose children are eligible for free school meals will continue to receive vouchers through the summer after a government U-turn following a campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford.
The government said free school meals for the poorest families will continue over the summer holidays, announcing a new £120m voucher scheme after pressure from a campaign led by the Manchester United player.
The 22-year-old wrote an open letter to MPs this week urging a re-think on the decision not to award free school meals vouchers in England - for which nearly 1.3 million children are eligible - outside of term time.
The voucher scheme, introduced when schools closed in March at the onset of the coronavirus crisis, allows families to claim shopping vouchers of £15 a week per child, which can be redeemed in a range of supermarkets.
Some 13,953 children in Norfolk schools currently receive free school meals.
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It is understood summer holiday payment will be through a one-off six week voucher given to eligible families at the end of term.
Announcing the new scheme, which will cost £2m in Norfolk, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “Owing to the coronavirus pandemic the prime minister fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer.
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“To reflect this we will be providing a Covid Summer Food Fund. This will provide food vouchers covering the six-week holiday period.
“This is a specific measure to reflect the unique circumstances of the pandemic. The scheme will not continue beyond the summer and those eligible will be those who already qualify for free school meals.”
Free school meals normally cease in the summer holidays but the decision to provide extra help to families was welcomed by Norfolk MPs and campaigners.
George Freeman, Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk, had been among those urging Boris Johnnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak to rethink extending the scheme, describing Marcus Rashford as “an inspirational young Brit” who had made “a very powerful case”.
He added: “The Covid crisis demands special interventions. Adequate nutrition should be a fundamental basic for every child in our country.”
Dan Mobbs, chief executive of the Norfolk-based Mancroft Advice Project (MAP), which supports young people, said: “It is great that this decision has been made. It will make a big difference to people.
“Free school meals are a lifeline, the difference between being able to afford enough food and not for some families.
“It’s also great the way the campaign was led as well, I think that is really positive with Marcus Rashford being someone who has had those experiences.”
Mr Rashford, who has raised £20 million to boost food distribution with the charity FareShare, has said he used food banks and received free meals during his underprivileged childhood in Manchester.
Responding to the government decision, he tweeted: “I don’t even know what to say. Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”
Labour had launched a Holidays Without Hunger campaign on Sunday calling on the government to make sure “no child goes hungry this summer”.
Clive Lewis, Labour MP for Norwich South, said: “You cannot just draw an arbitrary line at the start of the summer holidays as if magically declaring this is the line at which the Covid-19 free school meal voucher system will suddenly stop because that’s the point at which the crisis is over. It doesn’t work like that.”
Steve Morphew, leader of the Labour group on Norfolk County Council, said: “Good on Marcus Rashford - but shouldn’t it be those who have been elected to run the country and county to work out feeding our children is at least as important as propping up business?
“We’re not taking anything away from Marcus who is clearly an intelligent, well informed and talented young man - but it comes to something when the government is forced into a swerving U-turn because a 22-year-old footballer has better insights into the needs of less well off families.”
Hannah Worsley, project manager at Norwich Foodbank, said: “We have seen a big rise in the number of families needing us during the coronavirus period and that is with the existing free school meals scheme in place.”
Free school meals vouchers, introduced by the Department for Education (DfE) when schools closed in March, initially covered term-time meals, but extra funding was also provided to cover the Easter holidays.
However the scheme run by French company Edenred was plagued with problems as schools struggled to access the system and families were left without vouchers for weeks.
‘This will be a life-saver for parents like me’
• Norwich-mum-of-two Jessica Montgomery said: “We struggle every summer without free school meals and because of seasonal work that has completely dried up because of coronavirus I don’t know what we’d have done this year.
“I know some people don’t understand but when every penny counts even that £30 a week in voucher has been so important.”
• Mum-of-four Sarah from Downham Market, said: “Free school meal vouchers have been a massive help to me and my three children who are currently not at school. Due to me being furloughed, I am struggling quite a bit and not sure when my work will reopen.
“I was receiving £45 a week - £15 for each - so that works out at £3 a day.
“My children’s school is now stopping the vouchers and doing food hampers again instead. They did this when they first shut to be honest there was nowhere near enough to feed my three children for five days out of it. So the vouchers continuing in the summer will be a life saver for many many parents like myself.”