Bread And Butter

Free School Meal Vouchers: Failing Families in Need

The Bread and Butter Thing (TBBT) today called for a radical reimagining of the Free School Meal voucher scheme, revealing significant flaws in the current system which will still allow children to go hungry during the current summer holiday.

Mark Game, TBBT CEO explains: “The Bread and Butter Thing is calling for the government to decentralise the current voucher system and allow local authorities the power to create local solutions to suit local families – including the option to spend vouchers with small retailers and third sector organisations or even abandon vouchers all together and pay parents and carers funds direct.

“Free School Meals vouchers are providing vital support to families during the COVID pandemic. However, the current system is seriously flawed and risks leaving thousands of low-income families without access to food either through digital exclusion or poor access to registered supermarkets - perpetuating the problem of holiday hunger.”

Through its network of over 11,700 members and 33 community hubs – including 8 schools – TBBT has established the following critical issues in the supply of FSM vouchers:

  1. Food deserts and lack of access to registered retailers
  2. Digital exclusions, forcing parents/carers to rely on schools to individually supply their vouchers
  3. Prohibitive costs for smaller retailers or third sector food organisations to run the scheme and accept FSM vouchers.

Food Deserts and lack of access to registered retailers

The number of retailers currently part of the scheme is limited and many areas of high deprivation are not well served by the big-name supermarkets, making access difficult for families who do not live near the major retailers.

For example, access to food is vividly illustrated in this map created by Megan Blake, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Sheffield, demonstrating access to food within the Manchester City Council area.

Digital exclusion

The vouchers have to be accessed by a code entered online and they are then sent as an eCard to be presented at the till. This presents a host of issues for families with no or limited digital access. Whilst schools can access and print the vouchers if necessary, this is excluding for families who do not have access or control over their own food.

Costs of joining the scheme

There is no option to purchase food from markets, corner shops or smaller retail chains - often the main option for food in low income areas. £15.00 will buy more produce in some retailers than others, so having the freedom to 'shop around' is paramount. If parents/carers could use the vouchers to purchase food from discounted suppliers, such as The Bread and Butter Thing, community grocers, other mobile pantries/schemes or even local markets then the money could go much further and create a much greater impact.

Whilst the current operators do not charge supermarkets to access the scheme per se, supermarkets need to have the digital eCard infrastructure in place to enable their participation.

Setting this up incurs cost that prohibits smaller, independent food shops participating in the scheme. TBBT have investigated one such provider who charge 17p per voucher issued.

There is also a transaction charge of 5% for each voucher used - as result if TBBT was to be able to accept vouchers, it would only receive £14.08 per transaction:

Value of voucher        £15.00

Fee to tech supplier    £00.17

Fee to operators         £00.75

Total paid to TBBT: £14.08

With 8 school hubs with between 150 - 200 members in each, this could cost as much as £8,832 over the 6-week holiday period, just for TBBT school-based hubs. This makes it very expensive for a charity to put provision for acceptance of vouchers in place.

Mark Games sums up: “The current Free Schools Meals system in England is pushing schools to use a voucher system for supermarkets which may be difficult to travel to and are relatively expensive.  It makes it much less likely that families will regularly buy the right food for the children and that the vouchers will fail to support the most vulnerable children and their families who do not have digital access and live in areas of high deprivation with little supermarket access.”