More families in Devon are eligible for free school meals for their children than ever before, with numbers soaring during the coronavirus pandemic to the highest levels on record.
Around a further 3,300 children became eligible for free school meals between January 2020 and January 2021, rising to a total of approximately 17,000 during the last term, which equates to nearly 16 per cent of all school children across Devon.
Over the past year, Devon County Council has invested nearly £3.1 million on providing over 82,000 supermarket vouchers for families who qualify for free school meals so their children don’t go hungry over the school holidays. That scheme is operating again over the summer, with vouchers worth £15 per child per week of the summer holiday being sent to families to help them buy food to replace the meals their child would have received at school during term-time.
The length of summer holidays differs from school to school so the vouchers are worth £75, £90 or £105 (£15 per child per week) depending on how many weeks each child has off. They can be redeemed in major supermarkets across Devon and arrangements are in place for families who cannot get to a supermarket.
It’s part of a multi-million pound programme organised by Devon County Council to combat holiday hunger, with vouchers also previously issued for the Christmas, February half term, Easter and May half term breaks.
Councillor Roger Croad, Devon County Council’s Cabinet member for communities, said:
“The financial challenges faced by some families in Devon have been intensified by the coronavirus pandemic and for those already on low incomes the impact has been profound.
“Many people in Devon rely on food production and hospitality for work, and saw their incomes change overnight, so it’s no surprise that we’ve seen a big increase in the number of families claiming free school meals over this time last year.
“We are committed to supporting people in Devon experiencing hardship, and these vouchers will help ease the strain of buying extra food over the school summer holiday to replace the free school meals their children receive during term time. It’s a lifeline for many families and I encourage anyone who is struggling to get in touch, support is available.
“As well as issuing the vouchers to families directly, we’re also working with our Early Help teams, children’s centres, food networks and district councils to help vulnerable families who may not be eligible for free school meals.”
In addition to the £3.1 million holiday voucher scheme, Devon has also received almost £1.7 million to deliver the Department For Education’s Holiday Activities and Food programme for 12 months to provide a wide range of activities and nutritious food for children and young people over the school holidays, free for low income families.
The children who take part will enjoy fun and enriching activities in a safe and sociable environment and have the opportunity to develop new skills or knowledge and try out new experiences, make friends and have fun.
Among the activities being staged in communities across the county are a variety of sports, arts and crafts, drama, cooking, water sports, forest school and circus skills.
At least one meal per day will be included and the children will improve their knowledge and awareness of healthy eating. The scheme also aims to help families develop their understanding of nutrition and food budgeting.
Places on the holiday schemes are available for free to children aged from five to 16 who receive benefit-related free school meals, and schools in the county have distributed letters to those who qualify. But some of the activities may also be open to other children whose families wish to pay for them to take part, if there are enough places.
Councillor Andrew Leadbetter, Devon County Council’s Cabinet member for children’s services and schools, said:
“School holidays can be particularly difficult for some families because of increased costs, such as food, and reduced incomes. For some children, especially those from low income families, it means they are less likely to eat healthily, take part in organised activities or socialise with their friends.
“We’ve been working with a range of schools and voluntary and community groups across Devon to get the Holiday Activities and Food programme organised and I think it will provide excellent support for children and families who might otherwise be struggling over the long summer break.”
If you didn’t previously qualify for free school meals but your income has reduced or stopped, the quickest and easiest way for your eligibility to be assessed is through the Devon County Council website and you will get an instant decision.
Alternatively, contact Devon County Council’s education helpline on 0345 155 1019.
More information about the free school meals holiday voucher scheme is available on Devon County Council’s website.
A full list of what’s on can be found on Holiday Activities and Food (HAF) programme page on the Devon County Council website.