Hackney school children could still go hungry despite summer extension of free school meals

St Matthias school staff saw a surge in parents requesting food bank vouchers so decided to open the

St Matthias school staff saw a surge in parents requesting food bank vouchers so decided to open their own. Picture: St Matthias School - Credit: St Matthias School

The government has extended free school meals vouchers over the summer but some Hackney teachers believe there are many families who are not eligible despite needing support.

Hackney secondary school teacher Fatou Diallo.

Hackney secondary school teacher Fatou Diallo. - Credit: Fatou Diallo

Lucy Blewett, Head Teacher of St Matthias School in Stoke Newington is “reassured” by the summer extension of free school meals but says the voucher scheme has added pressure to both school and home life.

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She told the Gazette: “The website is hard to use, helplines are at a premium rate and the system relies on parents having access to the internet – often in the early hours to avoid high traffic on the site.”

Free meals for all primary school pupils are kept on by Tower Hamlets Council. Picture: Rehan Jamil

Free meals for all primary school pupils are kept on by Tower Hamlets Council. Picture: Rehan Jamil - Credit: Rehan Jamil

“Once our parents have navigated the first hurdle they have taken their code to the super market only to have it rejected – with some families reporting having to put food back onto the shelves.”

The government launched the Covid Summer Food Fund, “a specific measure reflecting the unique circumstances of the pandemic”, following a campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford.

It previously said the scheme would finish at the end of the summer term but made a u-turn due to mounting pressure from the footballer and other campaigners.

“It is brilliant that Marcus Rashford could use his status and platform to lobby the government on getting vouchers over the summer but as teachers and school leaders we wish the government had listened to our concerns from the start,” said Lucy.

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She worries that many children across the country could go hungry over the summer despite the free school meals extension being implemented.

She said: “We know that it is not just our free school meals families needing help, others have lost their jobs or have been furloughed and as a result are in limbo, not qualifying for benefits but struggling to put food on the table.

“Others have no recourse to public funds. Parents have had their shopping bill tripled with children at home for three meals a day. This is real life.”

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On June 30, The government temporarily further extended free school meal eligibility to include some children of groups with no recourse to public funds.

Fatou Diallo, a Hackney secondary teacher, shares Lucy’s concerns and has set up a petition to have free school meals extended to all students.

The aim of the petition is “to bridge inequality within the free school meal system,” strengthen inclusion and tackle bullying and stigmatisation.

Fatou said: “I [created a petition with the] aim of bridging inequality within the free school meal system in our schools.”

“It’s very important to offer all students without exception or background a free school meal.

“There are many working parents “who cannot afford to provide a healthy meal for their kids and this can be due to multiple reasons and or affordability”.

Meanwhile, St Matthias school has taken its own steps to support families by providing food parcels from local organisations like One Community and Magic Breakfast to all students, if needed.

Staff have also set up their own food bank to help make food packs for families and over the last seventeen weeks the school has given out over 400 parcels.

“We want to take the stigma away. We value the support from the government but often it comes with additional barriers,” said Headteacher Lucy.

She added: “Our families have been amazing during what has been a really challenging and troubling period.

“Working hard to support home learning and keeping children safe.

“We know that so many families have struggled during lockdown, with everyone at home all the time payments have skyrocketed with electricity bills and food bills.”

The latest government figures put the number of children eligible for free school meals at 1.3 million, though the effects of Covid-19 on food poverty and holiday hunger is not yet fully known.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Owing to the coronavirus pandemic the Prime Minister fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer.

“To reflect this we will be providing a Covid Summer Food Fund.”

To sign the petition click here

Find out more about St Matthias School here or follow on Instagram by clicking here

To find out more about free school meals and government guidance for schools click here

To learn more about free school meal eligibility and to apply click here

For more information about the temporary eligibility extension for NRPF groups click here