Rochdale council is reassuring families that they will be supported with free school meals this February half term.
This latest decision to provide support this month means more than £1.4million has been invested in free school meals support during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Families who are eligible for the free school meal benefit will get a £20 voucher per eligible child, marking a further investment of over £220,000 that will help 11,200 children across the borough.
Vouchers will be posted from the council so there is no need for families to ask schools about them.
Before the Christmas schools holidays, the council invested £448,000 of funding to provide £40 vouchers for each eligible child as well as additional help to those families being supported by children’s service and for care leavers.
“We want to reassure families that we’re providing free school meal vouchers regardless of what the government decides to do,” said Councillor Kieran Heakin, the council’s cabinet member for getting a good start.
“It is vital families know this is coming in good time. This issue is too important to be left to a last minute U-turn.
“It is clear that a well fed child will thrive more in education and not providing food support leaves families in difficulty and fails to support a large number of children.
“These children are our future and they deserve better.
“We’ve worked hard to provide a variety of support packages and listen to families when they say that vouchers work better for them.
“Our early help staff have spoken with families who say that food parcels can be stigmatising, in an already stressful situation.
“We’re offering vouchers with extra support in the form of additional food parcels from our food clubs, for families who are struggling, so that there are more options available and immediate emergency help when it’s needed.
“It’s clear that the government system does not work for families and it is about time they listened.”
Last year £640,000 of Aldi vouchers were given out by the council to top-up those on free school meals and £30,000 went into supporting the borough’s established food banks with another £30,000 going into setting up a new food club for families.
The clubs are run by children’s centres and connect with the wider food solutions network to ensure a wider range of support is available across the borough.
Families who are struggling to make ends meet can access the food clubs the council runs in partnership with charity Family Action.
By paying an annual membership fee of just £1, families are able to buy £15 of food for only £3.50 and multiple purchases can be made to support larger families.
Early help teams also work with families in greatest need, which can include help through free food bags.
Since it opened in July 2020 over 2,160 food parcels have been provided to support families with discounted food and over 260 of them have been free to those most in need.
Other support outside of free school meals has also been provided.
In December £96,000 was invested into the voluntary sector through the Food Solutions Network administered through Action Together and involving over 20 organisations.
This helped purchase food for the Community Warehouse, provide winter care packages, cleaning packs, essential toiletries and nappies to support households in greatest need.
Additional funding has been invested into the council’s Fit, Feed and Read programme which will enable it to now run in the Easter and summer holiday period.
The council and Link 4 Life will be working alongside schools to provide holiday provision for vulnerable children.
They will take part in activities throughout the week as well as receiving nutritious food throughout the day.
The programme that has been being delivered across the borough since 2016 is a commitment to vulnerable children and families facing difficulties.
“We have stepped in on several occasions now but a properly funded national solution is needed,” said Councillor Allen Brett.
“It shouldn’t take Marcus Rashford forcing regular U-turns everyone should see the importance of children not being hungry.
“We’ll keep fighting for families and do whatever we can.”
If your circumstances have recently changed in these challenging times then you may be eligible for the free school meals benefit – you can find out more at rochdale.gov.uk/school. For any families that are struggling, the council also has a wide package of early help support available here.