THE BOROUGH council has announced it will continue to offer free school meals throughout the Easter holidays, a move which has been welcomed by local charities.
Over the course of the school break, the council is offering food vouchers worth £30 per pupil, along with an activity pack to keep children entertained during their time off.
Each food voucher will provide £15 per week per child, and has been funded through a combination of Government grants and the council’s own budget.
The council said it wants to ensure every pupil who receives benefits-related free meals during term time has access to healthy food while away from school, too.
‘We’re glad to see the council stepping up’
Claire Revie, founder of SHARE Wokingham, said she is relieved the council is continuing to support the free school meals scheme.
“It’s great and I’m really pleased the council will offer support in this way, because there is definitely a need there,” she said.
However, Ms Revie has growing concerns about ongoing food insecurity and said offering free school meals is like “sticking a plaster over a bigger problem”.
“Perhaps in the long term we need to think about why there is such a great need for food,” she added. “This is a national problem and a huge challenge, and we need to think about what we can do to alleviate this.”
SHARE Wokingham is currently distributing food to around 150 households per week, and Ms Revie said there is no sign that number will decrease soon.
These concerns were also echoed by Emma Cantrell, founder and CEO of First Days Children’s Charity.
“We’re pleased the council is extending the free school meals provision, but the responsibility to tackle food insecurity lies with central government,” she said.
“We’re grateful to live in an area where our council provides the meals, but it’s a big responsibility to put on local authorities and is unsustainable in the long run.
“It’s become normal for food banks, local authorities and charities to step in to feed and clothe people, but it shouldn’t be necessary at all.”
What is the council offering?
Alongside the weekly £15 food vouchers, the council is also delivering activity packs to keep children entertained, which include prompts for scavenger hunts, simple craft projects, and healthy recipes.
Cllr UllaKarin Clark, executive member for children’s services, said: “The last year has been difficult for so many of us, but particularly for children and young people and their families.
“For a five year old, they have now spent a fifth of their life under covid restrictions.
“We recognise how hard it’s been on our young people and their families.”
What about the other school holidays?
Wokingham Borough Council will also offer free school meals to eligible pupils during the rest of the school holidays in 2021, and has signed up to the Government’s Holiday Activities and Food Programme to cover some of the cost.
The Government programme will fund six weeks’ worth of school holidays this year, providing free activities and meals for one week at Easter, four weeks in the summer and one week in Christmas.
Wokingham Borough Council will cover the remaining weeks itself.
Since last year, the council’s Covid Winter Grant has supported 2,200 children and young people with food vouchers, as well as 75 care leavers, and 330 families and individuals.
The scheme, which ended yesterday, supported residents and families struggling to access food, fuel and other essentials throughout winter because of the pandemic.
As the programme came to an end, Cllr Clark said the council wanted to do more.
“That is why we decided to cover the costs of free school meals for the rest of this year,” she said. “The past year has been a struggle for us in so many ways.”
At last Thursday’s executive meeting, the borough council approved an additional £100,000 of its own funding to support the latest covid grant.
Approximately £400,000 of combined council and Government funding has been invested in the meal scheme since last year.
“We are using £100,000 to keep this important grant going,” Cllr Clark added. “It has been our top priority throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to support our residents.”
‘Extending the scheme past lockdown is a good idea’
Juliet Sherratt, founder of Woodley Lunch Bunch, is also pleased the council will support the free school meals scheme throughout 2021.
“We think it’s fantastic that they will continue the vouchers,” she said. “The idea of extending the scheme past lockdown is a good idea because people’s financial situations are not going to bounce back as soon as restrictions lift.”
She said Woodley Lunch Bunch is able to print food voucher barcodes for anybody without a printer at home. For more information, visit: www.woodleylunchbunch.org
Vulnerable residents who are not eligible for the free school meals scheme can also contact SHARE Wokingham for support. For more information, visit: www.facebook.com/sharewokingham