Schools can order weekly shopping vouchers for children on free school meals from today, the government has announced.
The Department for Education (DfE) has said schools will shortly receive an email from its chosen provider, Edenred, enabling them to obtain weekly vouchers worth £15 for vulnerable pupils.
Until now, many schools have been making their own arrangements for the collection or delivery of free meals.
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Where this is not possible, today's development will allow them to provide vouchers to families electronically, or as a gift card for those without internet access.
The value of the vouchers has been set above the £11.50 currently paid to schools for the cost of providing free meals, as families – unlike school caterers – do not order in bulk and therefore face higher costs.
The vouchers can be spent on food at a range of shops including Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S.
The DfE says it is working to get more shops to join the scheme "as soon as possible".
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: "This is welcome news for schools and families. This new system fills in one of the remaining gaps in the complex jigsaw puzzle of provision that has arisen from the Covid-19 crisis.
"There may be some kinks to work out of the scheme, especially as it has been developed at pace, but at least there is some certainty available now."
He added: "The government has done the right thing by ensuring that vouchers can be used at a range of different shops, making it more practical for families to use the vouchers.
"Many schools had already developed their own schemes and local solutions, so it is good to see that they will be able to continue these if they’re working well or adopt the new scheme if they feel that would be better."
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: "To date, schools have been making their own local arrangements, so the availability of a national scheme will be some relief.
"But let’s be under no illusions. This will be a tough situation for struggling families. They will have to provide lunches for each child for £3 a day, which is obviously not very much.
"We recognise that this is above the rate that is paid to schools, to allow for the fact that families cannot order food in bulk in the same way.
"Nevertheless, it will be challenging for parents and carers who already have the extra cost of children unexpectedly at home for an extended period."
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said that while some schools were making their own plans to ensure pupils continued to be fed, he hoped most would join the scheme.
He said that no child should have to go hungry as a result of measures brought in to control the spread of the virus.
"I really hope that this is something taken up by most schools. I think this will be a real big help to so many families," he said.
"We are living in extraordinary times at the moment. It's really important that we do everything we can do for families, make sure those children we really want to be able to support and help are getting that support.
"What we are wanting to do is just give schools that extra bit of support, give families that extra bit of support."