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This publication is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-free-school-meals-guidance/covid-19-free-school-meals-guidance-for-schools
This guidance is under review following the Prime Minister’s announcement on 22 February 2021. We will update it shortly.
This guidance has been updated to include information on:
- supplier relief payments
- the period for which the support should cover
Providing meals for pupils attending school
Schools should provide meal options for all pupils who are in school, including vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. Meals should be available free of charge to:
- all infant pupils
- pupils who meet the benefits-related free school meals eligibility criteria
The government will continue to provide schools with their expected funding for benefits-related free school meals and universal infant free school meals throughout this period.
Schools should speak to their school catering team or provider about the best arrangements for providing school meals for those pupils in school.
For pupils eligible for benefits-related free school meals at home during term time, schools have the freedom to decide on the best approach for their pupils and have a range of options which include lunch parcels, locally-arranged vouchers or the Department for Education’s national voucher scheme.
All meals provided must still comply with the school food standards.
Drinking water must be provided free of charge at all times to registered pupils on the school premises.
Schools should consider the most appropriate way to do this if, for public health reasons pupils do not have access to water fountains.
Schools should take steps to limit the use of single-use plastic water bottles.
Support for pupils who have to stay at home
Under normal circumstances, schools do not provide free school meals to eligible children who are not in school. During the national lockdown, we expect schools to continue supporting children eligible for benefits-related free school meals who are at home during term time.
Schools may consider working with their school catering team or food provider to provide good quality lunch parcels to eligible free school meal pupils who are at home.
The steps schools take during this national lockdown period will depend on local circumstances.
This could include:
- providing lunch parcels through the school catering team or food provider
- providing vouchers for a local shop or supermarket
- using the Department for Education (DfE)’s national voucher scheme, which reopened on 18 January 2021
Free meals for further education students
Further education institutions should continue to provide support for students who are eligible for free meals, whether they are attending or studying remotely due to coronavirus (COVID-19).
Institutions should continue to provide support in the most appropriate way based on their local circumstances.
Further information is available in the 16 to 19 free meals in further education guidance.
Providing lunch parcels through the school catering team or food provider
Schools can work with their school catering team or food provider to provide lunch parcels to pupils eligible for benefits-related free school meals who are at home.
The government provides schools with funding to cover benefits-related free school meals. Schools can claim for additional funding of £3.50 per week for each eligible pupil receiving lunch parcel provision at home. Where you are working with your catering suppliers to provide lunch parcels, you are expected to pass on the additional funding we are providing in full.
The benefits of providing lunch parcels include:
- the confidence that a nutritious and varied range of food is being provided in line with information published by the Lead Association for Catering in Education, and that meets the school food standards
- being able to quickly set up provision as many school caterers will have experience of delivering lunch parcels
- supporting safeguarding through the opportunity to maintain regular contact with vulnerable pupils and ensure they receive healthy nutritious food
- reducing the risk of food waste, which catering suppliers may have already purchased
We have been working with the school food industry to explore the best possible arrangements where lunch parcels are needed.
Schools and families may find weekly collections of lunch parcels easier than a more frequent approach. Where parents are unable to collect the parcel, they can tell the school that they have asked a friend, volunteer or family member to collect it on their behalf.
Schools may wish to work with other local schools to provide food boxes where they are easier to deliver or collect from one location, or when supporting multiple children from the same family who attend different schools.
Lunch parcels should:
- contain food items rather than pre-prepared meals due to food safety considerations
- minimise the fridge and freezer space that schools and families will need to store foods
- contain items which parents can use to prepare healthy lunches for their child/children across the week
- not rely on parents having additional ingredients at home to prepare meals
- not contain items restricted under the school food standards
- cater for pupils who have special dietary needs, for example, vegetarians, religious diets, or pupils who cannot eat certain ingredients due to an allergy or other medical condition - schools should ensure there are systems in place to avoid cross-contamination
- contain appropriate packaging sizes for household use, rather than wholesale sizes
The Lead Association for Catering in Education (LACA) have produced information on lunch parcels. It sets out some general principles for putting together a lunch parcel which will allow parents and carers to prepare simple and healthy lunches for their children at home across the week.
Lunch parcels must be distributed in line with guidance on social distancing at all times.
Providing locally-arranged vouchers
If schools have confirmed with their school catering team or food provider that it is not in the best interest of pupils to provide lunch parcels, they can consider other local arrangements, which might include vouchers for local shops and supermarkets.
Schools can claim to be reimbursed for £15 per eligible free school meals pupil per week. Schools may wish to arrange collection or delivery of vouchers where appropriate. For example, it may help to support safeguarding. Collection and delivery must be conducted in line with guidance on social distancing at all times.
Change 4 life have also produced easy, low-cost lunch recipe ideas which may support families who are receiving a voucher.
Covering additional costs
Schools will continue to receive their expected funding for benefits-related free school meals throughout this period. To recognise the additional cost of provision for pupils at home, schools will be able to claim additional funding:
- £3.50 per eligible pupil, per week, where lunch parcels are being provided
- £15 per eligible pupil, per week, where vouchers for local shops or supermarkets are being provided
Schools can vary their approach according to local needs, but should only claim for one of these approaches per pupil for any given week. During the period from 4 January to 16 January, if parents have received an inadequate lunch parcel that does not meet the standard expected, the school will be able to claim retrospectively for a locally arranged voucher. They cannot also claim the lunch parcel top-up funding for this period.
Beyond the fact that it will need to be a valid claim based on eligible children and support provided over the specified timeframe, claims will not be subject to any additional criteria. Further details on the claims process and timing will be confirmed separately.
The cost of vouchers provided through the national voucher scheme will be met centrally by DfE.
Period the support should cover
Support should be provided each week for benefits-related free school meal pupils at home during the national lockdown and school opening restrictions, from the week beginning 4 January to the week beginning 8 February. It will restart again for the week beginning 22 February.
Support during the half-term holiday will be available through the Covid Winter Grant Scheme.
We will monitor orders at school level to check that schools are requesting the right amount of support for their eligible children. If a school’s claims are higher than expected, we may speak to the school about why this has occurred and will pursue any necessary action to rectify the position which could include action to recoup funds.
We recognise that in some circumstances schools might use more than one approach. A cross-check will be made against claims for lunch parcels, claims for vouchers and orders through the national voucher scheme.
This guidance will be regularly reviewed and will expire when schools are no longer asked to limit attendance.
National voucher scheme
Vouchers will only be available through the national voucher scheme from the week commencing 18 January, however, any support provided since 4 January 2021 through lunch parcels or locally arranged vouchers can be claimed back from DfE.
Schools are responsible for providing free schools meals support to eligible pupils during term time and should order vouchers on their pupils behalf. Before ordering vouchers, check which pupils are eligible and would be receiving benefits-related free school meals.
How to order vouchers
You should have received an email from our supplier Edenred by 14 January, advising you how to either reset your password or activate your account for the first time. If your school has not received this email, please complete Edenred’s contact change request form.
Once you have done this, you will be able to:
- order a single voucher to cover multiple weeks, for example, a £30 voucher to cover one eligible child over 2 weeks
- order a single voucher to cover more than one eligible child within the same household, for example, £60 to support 2 eligible children over 2 weeks
- set a weekly £15 rolling voucher, up to the week commencing 8 February, after half term you can continue to order up to week commencing 1 March
Further information about placing orders after the half-term holiday will be issued by Edenred.
To ensure that vouchers are processed in a timely manner, schools should submit one spreadsheet to order eCodes for all eligible families wherever possible.
You must confirm the terms and conditions at the end of the ordering process, otherwise, your vouchers will not be processed.
Once you have confirmed the voucher’s value, you can either:
- send an eCode directly to the parent or carers of the pupils(s) eligible for free school meals - they will need to choose an eGift card from a range of supermarkets
- select an eGift card on the parent or carer’s behalf, and print and post the eGift card to them
- select an eGift card on the parent or carer’s behalf, print the eGift card and arrange for families to collect it or deliver it to them in person
Sending eCodes to families
You can send a redemption eCode from the Edenred system directly to the parent or carers of the pupil(s) eligible for free school meals. They should receive the eCode and instructions on how to use this to create an eGift card within 4 days.
You should only consider this approach if the family receiving the support has a working email account which they can access. Edenred will monitor where emails have not been successfully delivered to families, and they will contact the affected schools directly.
You can choose a supermarket on the family’s behalf and either post the eGift card to the parent or carer or arrange for them to collect it. The family will be able to redeem the eGift card as soon as it arrives. You should take this approach if the family receiving the voucher does not have access to an email address or the internet.
If you choose this option, you should think carefully about which shops and supermarkets are most convenient for families to access - if possible, ask the families.
If families are self-isolating and do not have support from local family, friends, or neighbours to access food, they should contact the school or local authority, to seek support.
Through Edenred, you can currently access eGift cards for the following supermarkets:
- Company Shop Group
The vouchers for Asda, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose can be used online as well as in the store.
Schools can purchase vouchers for other supermarkets and claim back the costs.
Redeeming the vouchers
Once families have received their voucher, they will be able to redeem them in store at the selected retailer by either:
- presenting the voucher on a smartphone or tablet
- presenting a paper copy of the voucher
Families are free to select the most appropriate lunch for their child. When selecting products, we encourage families to consider health and nutrition. The school food standards and NHS Eat Well may act as a useful guide for families.
Vouchers must not be used for age-restricted items, such as alcohol, cigarettes or lottery tickets.
Using funding for supplier relief
Speak to your catering provider(s) about your arrangements in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
The government will continue to provide schools with their expected funding, including funding to cover free school meals and universal infant free school meals, throughout the national lockdown.
If appropriate to maintain delivery of critical services, you may consider making payments as normal to suppliers that you consider are at risk, even if service delivery is disrupted or suspended. Such payments should only cover the cost of free school meals and universal infant free school meals and not the costs of meals usually purchased by parents for pupils who are not eligible for free school meals.
You will want to consider:
- food already purchased by suppliers, including food for pupils who are attending school (for example, for the children of key workers)
- whether you are working collaboratively with your supplier on the provision of food parcels for free school meals children learning at home.
Any relief payments for free school meals and universal infant free school meals should be based on the time period that is most appropriate, provided the supplier agrees to act on an open book basis and make cost data available. Schools should make payments to suppliers promptly and on time.
Schools should work with suppliers to ensure that:
- any relief payments are used by suppliers to help cover non-furloughed staff costs and other non-staff expenses only - relief payments must not be used to cover costs associated with staff furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme
- they do not make profits on elements of a contract that are undelivered during this period
You should work in partnership with the supplier to plan an exit from the agreed interventions and transition to a new, sustainable operating model. You and your suppliers will need to work in partnership, openly and pragmatically, during this transition to ensure that contracts are still sustainable.
Free school meal eligibility
The eligibility criteria for free school meals can be found at apply for free school meals.
During the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, we have temporarily extended free school meals eligibility to include some groups who have no recourse to public funds (NRPF).
This temporary extension is continuing and covers both pupils who are attending school and who are at home due to coronavirus (COVID-19).
See guidance on the temporary extension of free school meals eligibility to NRPF groups for more information.
Support for families
Further government support is available for families struggling as a result of coronavirus (COVID-19).
If families need urgent help, they can contact their local council to find out what services are available in their area.
Covid Winter Grant Scheme
A £170 million Covid Winter Grant Scheme announced in November is being run by local authorities in England.
The funding is ring-fenced, with at least 80% earmarked to support with food and essential utility costs and will cover the period to the end of March 2021.
It will allow local authorities to directly help the hardest-hit families and individuals over the winter period.
Local authorities have local ties and knowledge, making them best placed to identify and help those children and families most in need.
Expansion of the Holiday Activities and Food programme
In November, the government announced that the Holiday Activities and Food programme will expand in 2021.
Disadvantaged children across England will be offered free healthy meals and enriching activities over the Easter, summer and Christmas holidays.
Local authorities will receive funding to coordinate the delivery of the programme. Some may co-ordinate it themselves, and others may choose to work with another organisation to co-ordinate provision on their behalf.
The programme will make free places available to children who are eligible for free school meals for a minimum of 4 hours a day, 4 days a week, 6 weeks a year. This would cover 4 weeks in the summer, and a week’s worth of provision in each of the Easter and Christmas holidays.
Funding to local authorities will reflect the participation rate among eligible children, based on what we have seen in the pilot stage of this programme.
More information on the holiday activities and food programme is available.