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Blog post

‘Why can’t I use this voucher?’ The impact of Covid-19 on access and (in)effective support of the school food voucher scheme

Gurpinder Lalli, Senior Lecturer in Education and Inclusion Studies, University of Wolverhampton

The Food Foundation (2020) has found since lockdown started that 5 million people in the UK living in households with children under 18 have experienced food insecurity. A minority (1.8 million) experienced food insecurity due to the lack of food supply in shops, leaving 3.2 million people (11% of households) suffering from food insecurity due to issues such as loss of income or isolation. Even more worryingly, more than 200,000 children had skipped meals because their families did not have enough food during lockdown. As a result, households with children eligible for free school meals (FSM) were at an elevated risk of food insecurity after seven weeks of lockdown. To counter this, the Department for Education (2020) introduced a shopping voucher scheme in England in March 2020 to support children who normally receive free school meals worth £15 per child per week.

In this blog post I reflect on the introduction of the school food voucher scheme, which was introduced to support families in need. What has been the impact of the school food voucher scheme in England? How did schools respond to Covid-19, in relation to food during holiday provision? What might this mean for future school food policy? These questions have been part of my interest and focus for research, but this piece highlights reflections from BERA-funded research on a rapid response study conducted between September 2020 and March 2021.

Key findings from this study highlight the impact of food on children’s daily lives beyond the formal school calendars. Children were unable to spend time with peers and socialise, and the school lunch is one of the key periods during the school day that fosters these interactions. Primary and secondary schools reported a lack of piloting from Edenred’s scheme, who were contracted to roll out the school food voucher scheme during the Covid-19 pandemic. The lack of training for both staff and parents meant that the initial roll-out of the scheme was problematic. During the BERA-funded project, I interviewed four school leaders, one of whom described their experiences of remaining open as a ‘hub school’, which included the fact that their school became responsible for feeding pupils and processing the school food vouchers.

‘What was happening was that many other local schools just didn’t have the staffing capacity to stay open, and with us being one of the largest schools the local authority spoke to us about whether we could become a hub school and whether we remained open and took children from other schools. Over the Easter break we had children from 10 different schools with us…’

Hub schools are school-led centres of excellence for teacher and leadership training and development (DfE, 2020b). One school leader of a larger school in their region reported on the added responsibility and pressures of supporting children from other schools, which led to an increased drain on resources, in particular food. In this sense, a hub school is like a feeder school where pupils would be assigned during the period where other local schools were closed. The hub school supported children with both classroom learning and processing of the school food vouchers, which created resourcing pressures with staff often having to work late at night to support families in accessing their vouchers.

We know that finding the most effective funding model for feeding pupils requires a joined-up approach (LACA, 2021) in terms of subject discipline and stakeholder involvement (Lalli, 2020). Children are to be the key stakeholders in this context, so participation is crucial in research, policy and the work that follows. We have seen some great examples of youth advocacy within the school food area, such as the BiteBack2030 initiative which invites young people to contribute to the longer-term school meal policy.

Recommendations

For school leaders:

  • to have contingency plans for schools set by leaders in place should the pandemic continue to affect families’ access to school food vouchers
  • to consider school food as a central part of the curriculum and review staff working practices
  • to continue engaging with local stakeholders for access to fresh produce and create seasonal menus
  • to engage with local MPs, parent governors and pupil committees to ensure school resourcing is considered
  • to promote further engagement with parent governors and pupil committees to document experiences of restrictions in order to prevent problems with vouchers in future.

For policymakers:

  • to engage with key stakeholders – that is Chefs in Schools, school leaders, School Food Matters, DfE School Food Unit, the Food Foundation and Taste Education
  • to listen to the views of families by holding regular informal focus group meetings
  • to consider the variability of school structures and deprivation when formulating policy by adopting a more localised approach, and move away from short-term solutions.

This blog post is based on the report, The Free School Meal Voucher Scheme & Children’s Access to Food During the Covid-19 Crisis, by Gurpinder Lalli, published in May 2021 as part of BERA’s series of publications on Education & Covid-19 that report the findings of projects supported by our Small Grants Fund for 2020/21.


References

Department for Education [DfE]. (2020a, March 31). Voucher scheme launches for schools providing free school meals [Press release]. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/voucher-scheme-launches-for-schools-providing-free-school-meals

Department for Education [DfE]. (2020b). Teaching school hubs. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/teaching-school-hubs

Food Foundation. (2020). New Food Foundation survey: Five million people living in households with children have experienced food insecurity since lockdown started. https://foodfoundation.org.uk/new-food-foundation-survey-five-million-people-living-in-households-with-children-have-experienced-food-insecurity-since-lockdown-started/

LACA. (2021, February 8). Tips on how schools should prepare for re-opening: The school food people. https://www.laca.co.uk/news/tips-how-schools-should-prepare-re-opening

Lalli, G. (2020). The school restaurant: Ethnographic reflections in researching children’s food space. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2020.1797210