How Leeds is trying to feed hungry children over the holidays without government free meal support

Headteachers, local restaurants and the council will be helping to feed thousands of children over half term after a government decision not to extend free school meals was branded a national disgrace.

Friday, 23rd October 2020, 4:21 pm

After the vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday night, where a Labour motion to extend the free school meals voucher system over the holidays was rejected, there has been an outpouring of anger and disbelief from all quarters.

But also gestures of goodwilll and generosity from local businesses across the city.

For example, Mumtaz is offering free takeaway meals for children aged 4 to 16, children can eat free at The Beehive in Thorner, The Learning Curve in west Leeds has pre-paid sandwiches and drinks for children on school meals to pick up at two cafes in Farsley and sandwiches are also being funded by Harvey's Butchers Jasper's Cafe in the village.

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Without intervention the cupboards will be bare next week for many families.

Leeds City Council has £113,000 left over from its Healthy Holidays scheme that runs every year and even though that money has to cover the October, Christmas and February school holidays it is going to be used in the hardest hit areas to get the maximum impact.

Coun Jonathan Pryor, Executive Member for Learning, Skills, Employment & Equality, said: "We have a Holiday Hunger programme which was always about feeding children and we still have that, but the figure (for children in receipt of free school meals) is £25,000 - it is simply not big enough to deal with that. We have fantastic stories like Mumtaz and Rainbow Junktion and Kirkstall Valley Development Trust and I have every faith that the city will pull together and do some of this, but it feels like we are plugging gaps that are becoming chasms."

For Leeds City Council to fund a voucher system in just the October half term and Christmas holidays would cost upwards of £1m but it is already facing a £200m budget battle due to the impact of COVID. Compared to this time ten years ago the budget for schools has reduced by eight per cent per pupil head.

Even though it looks too late for the government to make a u-turn before half term, Coun Pryor says he is "praying" there has been a resolution before Christmas.

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"I am praying that they will u-turn for Christmas. If they go hungry next week we can make sure that they are fed when they come back but at Christmas it is two weeks, it is colder, the holidays are longer. The government has to look again - it has to. When they tried to stop this last time and u-turned I thought 'they have seen sense' - I can't believe that we are here again."

Hillcrest Primary near Chapeltown has just under 30 per cent of children on free school meals, however, the deprivation levels are higher - it sits in the top one per cent of most deprived areas in the country.

Many families are not in the tax and welfare system as they work cash in hand so are not included in the scheme but are well below the breadline.

During the summer holidays the school was sending out 63 food parcels a week - just 22 of those were to kids who get free school meals. Over half term next week staff are now preparing to personally deliver anything up to 100 food parcels.

Principal Sam Done said the simplicity of the voucher scheme worked and suited families and that for schools the decision was confusing and disappointing.

He told the Yorkshire Evening Post: "It is confusing and disappointing that at this stage we have been told that for families that have come to rely on these after three holiday periods of being supported, that at such short notice it is being withdrawn. Most education professionals assumed that we would get the support because they did it over the summer. To find out a few days before the holidays that we need to put plans in place rapidly to support these families is a big ask.

"The simplicity of the voucher scheme when it finally got going was great. It meant that parents were able to make choices about the food they were giving children and we could guarantee that the correct families were receiving that.

"There is also the element of discretion if you receive an email voucher rather than someone turns up and for some families that is quite important and they have a right to privacy. The only choice we have as a school to deliver the food is to send them out this way but we at least know they have some healthy meals for next week."