Skip to content

Reports Part of series: Education & Covid-19: BERA Small Grants Fund research reports

The free school meal voucher scheme & children’s access to food during the Covid-19 crisis

With schools closed in the UK in response to the Covid-19 crisis, children who would normally receive free school meals were at an elevated risk of food insecurity. However, the voucher scheme launched by the Department for Education in England proved problematic, particularly in the early stages of its rollout, causing difficulties for schools – which responded in often very different ways – as well as for young people and their families.

This report investigates the difficulties with accessing the food voucher scheme experienced by both parents and schools, particularly but not only during holiday provision in Easter and summer 2020. It explores schools’ responses to Covid-19 in relation to food, and the barriers to accessing the school food voucher scheme encountered by families, and discusses the development of a school food toolkit that responds to stakeholders’ feedback and concerns.

The research reported on in this publication is one of a number of projects supported by BERA’s Small Grants Fund for investigations into how education was impacted by and responded to Covid-19. For other reports in the series and more about the Small Grants Fund, click here.  

Report summary

In March 2020, in the early days of the first UK-wide lockdown, the Department for Education (DfE) implemented a shopping voucher scheme worth £15 per child per week in England to provide support for children who would normally receive free school meals. Data gathered by the Food Foundation (2020) in late April 2020 indicated that five million people in the UK living in households with children under 18 had experienced food insecurity since the first lockdown started. Of these, 1.8 million experienced food insecurity due to food supply problems in shops, which means that 3.2 million people (or 11 per cent of households) suffered from food insecurity due to other issues such as loss of income or isolation.

The Food Foundation (2020) also discovered that, one month into lockdown, the parents of two million children said they had experienced one or more forms of food insecurity, and that more than 200,000 children had skipped meals because their families could not access food during lockdown. Therefore, households with children eligible for free school meals (FSM) were, after seven weeks of lockdown, at an elevated risk of food insecurity, as they would typically access food in school.

We need to reduce food poverty, holiday hunger and reliance on food banks. To do so, we need to both provide evidence to raise the profile of such issues and find ways to reduce the number of children going hungry. We need to devise sustainable policies to address these issues, and engagement with schools, activists and young people is crucial in this. Following a campaign led by England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, the government committed to providing free school meals to children in England during the 2020 summer holidays – an example of the potential positive effects of influencing opinion.

As part of this research project I am creating a school food toolkit that will help schools to take longer-term approaches to integrating food into the curriculum, enabling them to compare their contexts to other schools, learn about what it means to adopt a ‘school food ethos’ and consider the impact of school food policies on children’s wellbeing. While they will not provide a simple solution to ensuring that children have access to nutritious meals, they will enable school leaders to consider school food policy more broadly, knowing that deeper, more prolonged effort is necessary to bring about lasting change.

Key findings

  • Food has a huge impact on the daily lives of children, so school culture and organisation matters.
  • Data revealed that schools responded very differently to Covid-19 both locally and nationally.
  • There has been a lack of training for staff and parents on the operation of the voucher scheme.
  • School resource varies in terms of financial resources and funding models, but also in terms of knowledge, specialist skills and capacity.

Recommendations for school leaders

  • Have contingency plans for school meals in place.
  • Consider school food a central part of the curriculum, and review staff working practices to this end.
  • Continue engaging with local stakeholders to secure access to fresh produce and create seasonal menus.
  • Engage with local MPs, parent governors and pupil committees.
  • Stagger lunchtime arrivals, and introduce one-way travel systems.

Recommendations for national policymakers

  • Engage with key stakeholders such as Chefs in Schools, school leaders, School Food Matters, the DfE’s school food unit, the Food Foundation and Taste Education.
  • Listen to the views of families by holding regular informal focus group meetings.
  • Consider the variability of school structures and deprivation when formulating policy by adopting a more localised approach and moving away from short term solutions.


Profile picture of Gurpinder Lalli
Gurpinder Lalli, Dr

Reader in Education for Social Justice and Inclusion at University of Wolverhampton

Gurpinder is a Reader in Education for Social Justice and Inclusion in the School of Education. Trained as a sociologist and ethnographer, he has a track record in conducting research on the school meals service with a focus on inequity in...