"Local authorities have gone above and beyond during the pandemic." Sharon Hodgson MP spoke to APSE Direct about Free School Meals and the COVID response.
When the country went into lockdown ten months ago, Local authorities stepped up and have worked around the clock since to ensure that their communities are protected from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether it is setting up test sites, distributing Government grants to businesses or ensuring the most vulnerable are cared for and supported, local authorities have gone above and beyond during the pandemic.
More recently, councils have been able to distribute funds to families via the COVID Winter Grant Scheme; a fund set up by Government in lieu of extending Free School Meals over the Christmas holidays last year and to provide extra support up to March this year.
As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Food (APPG), I was concerned by the messaging from Government about the COVID Winter Grant Scheme, particularly when it came to school meals over the holidays.
The Scheme was considered a “win” because Free School Meals will be extended over the holidays, something the APPG has long fought for.
But the devil is in the detail, and Free School Meal provision over the school holidays only begins at the start of the Easter holidays this year.
That means some families will have missed out on provision over Christmas and unless the Government make a U-turn, children will miss out again during the February half-term too.
One child going hungry is one too many, but with 4 million children growing up in poverty it is estimated that thousands of children will be skipping meals each day.
Local authorities play an important role in supporting families out of poverty; they are best placed to identify those in need of further support and are able to identify solutions that work for them in their area.
Local authorities have been crucial to the COVID-19 response and they will be crucial to our recovery too.
But they are in financial turmoil themselves; with income falling and costs and demands on them rising.
The Government promised it would reimburse local authorities for the costs of the pandemic, but in December they abandoned that promise, leaving a funding gap of approximately £2.6bn this financial year.
Instead of supporting local authorities, the Government is forcing them to hike up council tax, hitting the very families Councils are trying to support.
Families shouldn’t be forced to foot the bill on this. The Government must fulfil its promise of funding the cost of the pandemic to councils, so that they can protect their frontline services and support families.
The APPG will continue to campaign on issues relating to children’s access to food. From the meals they receive in school to the provision during half time. Children need and deserve access to healthy food, especially as we recover from the impact of COVID-19 and local authorities will rightly play an important role in this.
• Sharon spoke on this topic at the APSE Facilities, Catering and Cleaning Management Seminar 2021 on 28 January. You can download the presentations from the event for free here.