Free school meals programme in Northumberland to be extended over Christmas holidays

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Northumberland County Council has plans in place to provide meals for disadvantaged children over the Christmas holidays.

During the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic, the Government had funded a voucher system to provide food for pupils eligible for free school meals during time off school, but this was stopped ahead of the October half-term, despite an earlier U-turn over provision continuing during the summer holidays.

This decision sparked a major backlash, with high-profile leadership on the issue from Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford, and Ministers again changed their minds, announcing funding in November to cover the school breaks from December through to March 2021.

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In a presentation to the Thursday, December 3, meeting of Northumberland County Council’s family and children’s services committee, Sue Aviston, from the education department, set out what will happen in the county later this month.

Free school meals have seldom been far from the headlines during the pandemicFree school meals have seldom been far from the headlines during the pandemic
Free school meals have seldom been far from the headlines during the pandemic

She explained that there are three methods of delivery for the Christmas break, given that local authorities only had four weeks to plan.

Around a quarter of schools and academies in the county will be using their own systems which have been put in place, whether that be vouchers, hot meals or food deliveries, and the council will pass on the money.

Most of the remaining three-quarters will be using the council’s centrally-funded voucher scheme, with support from the schools to distribute them.

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The national provider that the authority has agreed to partner with offers vouchers which are eligible at nine different supermarkets. They are free to use and all of the grant goes to the parent or carer.

Finally, recognising that many rural communities rely on the Co-op, which is not involved in any of the national voucher schemes, 21 schools have decided to use the third option of providing Co-op giftcards, as the infrastructure is not in place to develop a voucher system.

Meal vouchers will also be provided to Northumberland’s 126 care leavers, those pupils who are permanently excluded from school, and post-16 students in adult learning provision.

A communication plan to ensure parents and carers know about what is available will be launching on Monday, December 7.

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Labour’s Cllr Scott Dickinson said he was ‘reassured’ by the presentation, which demonstrated that lessons had been learned from the ‘chaotic’ experience earlier in the year.

The funding provided by the Government is known as the Winter Support Grant and has a wider remit than just feeding children eligible for free school meals and 80% of it is expected to cover food, fuel and utilities.

Therefore, Northumberland Communities Together will have around £200,000 of the council’s grant to distribute to support wider hardship issues.

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