Heads are "fuming" at an "unbelievable" letter from the Department for Education reminding them to provide pupils with nutritious food, just two days after the government voted against extending the provision of free school meals over the holidays.
This week MPs including education secretary Gavin Williamson, schools minister Nick Gibb and children's minister Vicky Ford rejected a campaign started by footballer Marcus Rashford to provide food to those in need while schools are closed.
A Labour motion calling for the free school meals scheme to be extended over the holidays until Easter 2021 was defeated by 261 votes to 322 on Wednesday – a majority of 61.
Now heads say they have received a letter from the DfE reminding them to give pupils "nutritious food".
Sharing the letter to social media, headteacher Andy Byers said: "Without a hint of irony, Headteachers have received a letter today from the children's minister reminding us about food standards and our responsibilities to provide students with...nutritious food and hot meals. Honestly!"
Without a hint of irony, Headteachers have received a letter today from the children’s minister reminding us about food standards and our responsibilities to provide students with with nutritious food and hot meals. Honestly!— Andy Byers (@Framheadteacher) October 23, 2020
The letter states: "Dear Headteacher, As the Minister responsible for school food I wanted to write to you all to thank you and your catering teams for all the efforts you've undertaken to get your kitchens up and running again.
"The government encourages all schools to promote healthy eating and provide healthy, tasty and nutritious food and drink and to support children to develop healthy eating habits."
Other heads responded to Mr Byers' tweet, saying they were "speechless" and "fuming".
I’ve just seen it, totally unbelievable. I really don’t know what to say but am feeling incredibly angry.— MsC (@felicityc) October 23, 2020
Yup. Fuming.— Caroline Derbyshire FCCT (@Morsecat) October 23, 2020
Speechless— Ruth Wilkes (@MrsRWilkes) October 23, 2020
A number of councils, alongside dozens of pubs, cafes and restaurants, have now said they will step in to offer free school meals for children over half term following the Commons vote.
Greater Manchester is joining with Co-Op to provide 1,000 food vouchers to young people who may need access to a meal during the half term break.
?️Greater Manchester is joining @coopuk and @MarcusRashford to provide 1,000 food vouchers across the city-region to young people who may need access to a meal during half-term— Mayor Andy Burnham (@MayorofGM) October 23, 2020
?The voucher provides free access to a meal deal offer in local Co-op stores #wereallinthistogether
Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson said he would fund free school meals over half term, feeding approximately 19,800 children.
And Labour-led Hammersmith and Fulham Council will give every pupil in need free school meal vouchers, equivalent to a £3 Tesco meal deal per day.
Council leader Stephen Cowan said watching the vote was "cutting".
He said: "I have seen a lot of kids who need food. I was in a school on Tuesday speaking to kids who have the free lunches now and they were explaining they have gone for days without a proper meal.
"They were very sweet kids, and then I looked at the MPs who were so callously indifferent to that and I thought, how can that be happening in the fifth richest country on Earth.
"There are so many things they spend money on, it's a moral imperative."
School breakfasts will be also delivered over the break to 600 pupils across the borough most in need of help.
Southwark Council leader Kieron Williams said the government "failed, so we are stepping up".
The London council will reallocate funds to pay for free meals over half term.
Mr Rashford, who was recently awarded an MBE after forcing a government U-turn on free school meal vouchers over the summer holidays, said he was "blown away" by the offers of support and has been retweeting businesses offering free meals.
"Selflessness, kindness, togetherness, this is the England I know," the Manchester United footballer tweeted.
But 10 Downing Street has today declined to praise cafes, pubs and restaurants offering to provide free meals for vulnerable children over half term.
Asked repeatedly if the prime minister welcomed the offer from businesses and some councils, a spokesperson said: "As we have set out before, we are in a different position now with schools back open to all and the vast majority of pupils back to school.
"I believe the PM said during PMQs that free school meals will continue during term time and that he wants to continue to support families throughout the crisis so they have cash available to feed kids if they need to."
The DfE has been approached for comment.