Councils across England are “quietly” axing holiday food voucher schemes for children on free school meals, which has left many families desperate this half-term, headteachers and charities warn.
It took a massive public campaign, led by the Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford, to force Boris Johnson into a U-turn in November 2020 on feeding children from the lowest-income families during the school holidays.
But the government has said it is now up to individual councils whether they continue to offer the £15-a-week vouchers. Local authorities including Reading, York, Wakefield, Stoke-on-Trent, Leeds and Birmingham have dropped them. Experts say parents face a postcode lottery for help.
Emma Cantrell, founder of First Days, a charity tackling child poverty in Berkshire, said: “Without a shadow of a doubt, there have been parents who haven’t been able to put food on the table this half-term, and children will be returning to school hungry on Monday.”
Cantrell works with a group distributing surplus food, and said they were “overrun with families desperate to get their hands on anything this week”. Her charity has been administering the children’s vouchers on behalf of Wokingham council. However, neighbouring Reading has dropped the scheme.
“There is a road where children on different sides get completely different support, with help for one family and no help for another,” she said.
Cantrell, whose charity distributes free beds and uniforms to struggling families, said demand for help had doubled in the past six months and she was now regularly seeing children who were “visibly malnourished”.
She added: “Councils will look like the bad guys [for cutting vouchers], but this is a result of changes by the government. It is being done incredibly quietly, so most people don’t know it is happening.”
In 2020, Rashford called for the government to extend its £15 free school meal vouchers – initially set up to feed children in term-time when schools were closed by the pandemic – into the holidays.
Before both the summer and Christmas holidays, Johnson, and his chancellor Rishi Sunak, dug their heels in and refused, only to be forced into a humiliating U-turn each time, after waves of criticism from charities, media, Labour and some Tory MPs.
Funding for holiday vouchers in England now has to come out of councils’ household support fund, introduced in October last year by the government.
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “Recently boosted by a further £421m, the fund allows councils – who know their areas best – to target support to those most in need, including providing extra support during the school holidays.”
Councils cutting the vouchers say support for children on free school meals is still available via other schemes but that they were using up too much of their share of the household support fund, which is supposed to help people across the community.
A spokesperson for Reading council said it was “consolidating food and energy support into one cost of living voucher”, targeted at the poorest families and older people.
Anne Longfield, chair of the Commission on Young Lives and former children’s commissioner, told the Observer she was “really concerned” that “more and more councils” are withdrawing food support for the poorest families.
“Families in some areas are being left high and dry,” she said. “These vouchers may be small but they can hold off destitution.”
She called on the government to acknowledge the growing number of families in poverty, adding: “This isn’t a personal issue. It is a national crisis that should be discussed alongside reassuring the markets.”
Jonny Uttley, chief executive of the Education Alliance academy trust, which runs seven schools in Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire, said: “Wakefield council has told us they can’t afford the vouchers. It is just pot luck. If you live in Hull you get £15 but in other authorities you get nothing.”
Although it is facing major financial pressures itself, the trust is now paying for vouchers from its own reserves so children don’t go hungry in the holidays.
James Bowen, director of policy for the school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “It cannot be right that whether or not families have access to financial support to ensure children are fed properly during the holidays depends on where they live.” He added:“We know some children rely on school for their only certain meal of the day.”
A single mother in Leeds with two boys receiving free school meals, who asked not to be named, said: “The voucher paid for most of the food for a week, and we got used to having it. But suddenly it didn’t come any more.”
This half-term she had to borrow money from her parents to feed her children. “Most politicians have never had to worry about whether they can buy food for the week,” she said. “I don’t think they understand and I don’t think they care.”
A spokesperson for Leeds city council said they would still provide free meals as part of their healthy holidays activities programme this Christmas, but that their share of the household support fund would “prioritise fuel support” this winter.