The council has stepped in to guarantee continued funding of young people in receipt of Free School Meal (FSM) vouchers, designating £400,000 to cover the cost of running the service for hundreds of children during this week’s holiday, the Christmas holidays and March 2022’s half term.
The campaign to properly feed disadvantaged children in holidays has been led by – among others – Marcus Rashford, the Man Utd and England star, who put his name to an open letter co-signed by the bosses of major food companies such as Sainsbury’s, Kellogg’s and the Co-op Group demanding action.
Almost a quarter of secondary school pupils in Merton are eligible for FSM, and, following the recent choice to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week, council officers and councillors are increasingly concerned that school children could go hungry without provision of the £15 a week supermarket vouchers.
In addition to this cut, the Government’s Covid Support (formerly ‘winter’) Grant which helped to cover FSM vouchers since Christmas 2020 has also been wound up: once this funding dried up the council paid for its holiday activity programme during summer with £75,000 from its own reserves.
The council will fund the latest FSM move through recourse to the Household Support Grant programme announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak last month, which will see local authorities across the country offered money from a national fund of £500m to support those in need this winter.
Merton will receive around £1.2m in total from the fund; at least 50% of this must be spent on families with children, with the expectation is that it will primarily be used to support households in the most need with their food, energy and water bills. The council is currently developing its plan on how to spend the remaining £786,000 over the next five and a half months.
Councillor Eleanor Stringer, Joint Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Children and Education, said: “We’re entering one of the toughest winters in years as a ‘perfect storm’ of benefit cuts, rising energy prices and uncertainty about fuel and food provision hits home for the most vulnerable members of our communities.
The end of the Covid Support Grant, which helped Merton and other councils to cover the cost of Free School Meals vouchers and activity programmes during half terms, meant that many children were facing the prospect of going hungry during this month’s holidays.
“Coupled with an end of the £20 a week uplift in Universal Credit which was brought in during the pandemic, this would have led to pupils facing a miserable week when they should be having fun and relaxing in the holidays.
“We’ve decided as a council to allocate funds to cover the cost for providing Free School Meal vouchers for the next two half terms and Christmas holidays.
“I was given free school meals when I was at school due to my family’s low income, and I’m grateful that such an entitlement was available to support my siblings and other families like me. I know how tough a holiday can be when you’re on a tight budget. We will continue as a council to fight for those most in need in our communities.”