Children in Scotland who are eligible for free school meals will continue to receive them over the summer holidays, after £27.6 million of additional funding was announced.
The Scottish government's announcement came shortly before the UK government said it was also extending its free school meals vouchers scheme over the summer holidays in a major U-turn, following pressure from England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford.
The Scottish funding will also cover other measures to help low-income families during the coronavirus pandemic.
Background: How councils plan to provide free meals
The latest data from Scottish local authorities shows that around 175,000 children and young people are currently receiving free school meals, or vouchers or cash payments to buy meals.
The number of children receiving free school food in Scotland has risen by 53,000 since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, due to the impact of the pandemic on family incomes and financial circumstances.
Coronavirus: Free school meals 'a valuable source of support'
The extra funding will also enable councils to continue to support a range of people who may be facing new or continuing barriers to accessing food, including due to reduced income if they are asked to self-isolate through contact tracing, until the end of September.
This funding adds to the overall package of £30 million allocated to councils in March to provide free school meals and offer food provision to key groups during lockdown.
Education secretary and deputy first minister John Swinney said free school meals were essential to support families “at this difficult time”.
“This significant additional funding will allow councils to plan for the summer and to continue the existing provision, whether that be offering nutritious free meals for children or through more direct means allowing families to get food for their families," he said. "Councils will have the flexibility to ensure they are able to use this additional funding to put in place provision that meets local needs and circumstances."
John Dickie, director of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland, said the announcement was “fantastic news” for the families who found free school meals “such a valuable source of support” – but added that all councils should move to providing families with cash, as opposed to providing vouchers or asking them to collect meals from a central location.
Mr Dickie added: “Hard-up families are facing extraordinary pressures as jobs are lost, hours reduced and childcare prioritised at the same time as the costs of looking after and educating children at home rise. Free school meals have been a really valued source of support, and their continuation through the holidays is hugely welcome.
"It is now vital that all Scottish councils move to the cash-based free school meal replacement model that is proving so popular with parents in providing choice and flexibility in helping them feed their families.”
Gail Macgregor and Stephen McCabe, who speak on resources and children and young people respectively for local authorities' body Cosla, said in a joint statement: “Cosla welcomes today’s announcement from the first minister on additional funding for food provision.
"Since the beginning of the pandemic, the effort of council staff in ensuring access to food for those who need it has been heroic."
They added: "Successful mechanisms have also been put in place in every local authority area to ensure food is available to those who are unable to access it by the usual means, due to isolation requirements or financial reasons."