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An update to Free School Meal Guidance for Schools

Roast Dinner Day

To apply for free school meals for your child, please visit your local council’s website. Click here to find your local council. 

You can also find more help and support near you on the #Endchildfoodpoverty website. 

April 2021 - Footballer Marcus Rashford calls for free school meals to be extended through the summer holidays

The government should extend free school meal provision through the summer holidays.

We at Food for Life support Marcus Rashford  and Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza’s call to government to ensure this happens ahead of the school break.

While we recognise the government has committed to the extension of the holiday activities and food programme (HAF), it still only covers half the school holidays (6 weeks).

It is very possible that some children experiencing food insecurity may be missed out, and no child should be left behind, hungry.

The government must review current free school food policy and make changes to support the health and wellbeing of all children all year round.

Watch this space for more news and action from us.

Marcus Rashford has also launched a new scheme with chef Tom Kerridge, Full Time, guiding families and children to learn how to cook healthy meals on a budget.

1st April – Increase in need for Free School Meals

Recent figures show a significant increase in numbers of children who qualify for free school meals because of the economic impact the pandemic has had on parents/carers.

Between January and October 2020, the proportion of children on free school meals in England rose from 17% to nearly 20%. This means that 1.63 million out of 8.2 million state school pupils are now in receipt of free lunches. In January 2020 the total was 1.44 million.[i]

The latest figures, however, do not capture the estimated 1.2million children[ii] that are living below the poverty line yet remain ineligible for free school meals.

What does government need to do?

We’ve been calling for the government to implement three recommendations from part one of the National Food Strategy. We were successful in asking the government to extend the holiday activities and food programme and increase the value of healthy start vouchers. However, to date, the government has still not implemented the third ask which is to expand the current eligibility criteria.

Support for expansion of free school meals is widespread and a recent poll by the Food Standards Agency and DEMOS[iii] found that 9 in 10 people agree that every child has the right to a healthy meal at least once a day.

As the situation has evolved, it has become clear that expansion of the eligibility criteria alone is not enough.[iv]. This is why we are now calling for a comprehensive review of school food policies[v]. The government needs to look at what is and isn’t working  and rather than temporary solutions we are advocating for a long-term plan that supports all children.

What is Food for Life doing?

Good food can transform lives and at Food for Life, we work with schools, caterers, early years settings and local authorities across the country, every day, to make good food available for all.

We help schools serve healthy, nutritious food that supports child health and wellbeing. Schools that hold a Food for Life Served Here award go above and beyond current School Food Standards, and they show what good school food can look like and we support them every step of the way.

We work closely with schools, cooks and caterers to take a whole school approach that looks holistically at child development. This means not only serving good food but also giving children the opportunity to learn about food and learn skills through cooking, growing and tasting. Children are actively involved in the food served in their schools. This empowers them and creates an inclusive environment. 

Food for Life will continue to support and push for greater recognition of the impact school food can have.





14th January – Changes to the guidance

Following reports from parents of inadequate food parcels being received from some caterers, the Government has amended their guidance and has removed the recommendation to provide food parcels as a first-choice option. The guidance now reads that for children who are at home and eligible for free school meals:

‘schools may consider working with their school catering team or food provider to provide good quality lunch parcels’

Schools should determine the most suitable option of provision either: food parcels; vouchers for local shops or supermarkets; or the DfE’s national voucher scheme (which will reopen on 18th January 2021).

We were disappointed to see such poor-quality food boxes being offered. Our Food for Life teams are working hard with Food for Life caterers to help provide nutritionally balanced, fresh and healthy food parcels where this option has been chosen by the school. We support healthy relationships between schools and their caterers and cooks, putting children’s health as a main priority.

Please get in touch with the team if you have any concerns or queries:

11th January – Updated guidance

We asked the Department for Education what support there will be for school meal provision and caterers at this unstable time and it’s great to see guidance finally being released. The guidance asks schools to work with caterers as a priority:

  • Schools are advised to work with their caterers to ensure meal provision continues for children still attending school
  • For children at home, as a first choice, schools are advised to work with their caterers to provide food parcels to eligible children
  • If caterers are unable to provide meals or parcels for children at home, vouchers can be issued depending on local circumstances or with the Department for Education national voucher scheme which is reopening soon

It is great that the Government has recognised the difficulties in meal provision during this time and has pledged additional funding to support schools and caterers. An additional £3.50 per eligible pupil per week is available to support the provision of food parcels. For food vouchers, funding is up to £15 per eligible pupil per week.

We really hope that schools will work with their caterers to find the best solution to ensure the wellbeing of children, staff and businesses at this increasingly strenuous time.

The updated guidance for caterers can be found here.

Nationwide lockdown and school closures - 5th January

Yesterday evening the Prime Minister announced a nationwide lockdown including the closure of schools except for children of key workers and vulnerable children. He confirmed that free school meal provision will continue during this time. Details on how this will be implemented have not yet been made clear. 

Before the Christmas break we were pleased to see the Government implement the extension of the holiday, activities & food programme and increase the value of healthy start vouchers. However, the expansion of the free school meal eligibility criteria remains unmet. This means that around 1.3million children who need support will not receive it. 

This lockdown which includes school closures will put even further strain on families and many children will continue to face food insecurity. The #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY campaign website has been launched for families who need support and you can also pledge your support.

Our briefing to the Free School Meals Government Debate - 21st October

As reported last week, Covid-19 has driven a surge in free school meal registrations. As the school holidays approach, millions of children are at risk of going hungry.

We have signed a briefing that has gone out to MPs in preparation for the Opposition Day debate today in the Commons.

The briefing outlines the current statistics on food insecurity and suggests a careful, targeted investment in three existing schemes, as recommended in the recent National Food Strategy commissioned by the Government, and as promoted by Marcus Rashford and his Child Food Poverty Task Force. 

These schemes would have wider benefits - improving the long-term health and resilience of the population, reducing childhood obesity, improving children’s academic performance, supporting parents to stay in work during the holidays, and easing the strain on the welfare system. 

The briefing provides key stats on:

  • Child food poverty rates
  • Falling wages and rising unemployment – key drivers of food insecurity

It also details what MPs can do and the reasons to support:

  • Expansion of the free school meal eligibility criteria
  • Extension of the Holiday Activities & Food Programme
  • Increase in value of Healthy Start Vouchers

Read the briefing in full here

16th October - Fresh fight for Free School Meals provision

Government is once again responding to Parliamentary questions around continued free school meal support over October half term and Christmas to say that they are "normally provided during term-time only”. This is despite the Government’s ‘U-Turn’ on free school meal provision ahead of the summer holidays.

We have therefore written to the DfE and Number 10 once again, as a matter of urgency, joined by multiple other organisations including Children’s Food Campaign, Food Foundation and Bite Back.

We are urging Government to commit to funding benefits-related free school meals during the autumn half-term and Christmas holiday periods, including children from households with no recourse to public funds.

We believe that funding should be available all year round, to ensure that support for vulnerable children is provided over holiday periods, even in so-called ‘normal times’. Yet if opposition to the extension of free school meals during the holidays is because they are normally only provided during term-time, we emphasise that 2020 has not been a normal year.

With cases of coronavirus once again on the rise, and local lockdowns now being enforced, the situation for many families experiencing food insecurity is worsening. The arrival of autumn and winter also brings increased heating and lighting costs, putting household food budgets under even further pressure.

Read our letter in full here

25th June - Our response to latest updates

The latest Government update on Free School Meals provision over the summer holidays  is a positive step in the right direction, however there remain a few areas where further clarification is required.

On Thursday 25th June, we wrote to DfE once again, requesting further confirmation on whether eligible families, including those who become eligible for FSM during the school break, will be catered for. This includes clarification on alternative support schools may offer.

As the summer holidays approach rapidly, we have asked for a prompt response.

Read this letter in full here 

25th June - Summary of latest DfE updates

The latest DfE guidance answered many of our queries, and states that:

  • Schools will now have received an email from Edenred with an activation code and guide 
  • Schools must order the voucher at least one week before the school term ends
  • Schools may decide to schedule a number of smaller vouchers to be sent to a family instead of a single £90 voucher
  • Where eligible families would be unable to access any of the supermarkets available through using Edenred eGift cards, schools can make alternative voucher arrangements with a local supermarket.
  • Any child currently in receipt of benefits-related free school meals or who becomes eligible during the summer term is eligible.

However, this will still mean that those newly eligible for FSMs during the summer will miss out -

see above for our letter to the Government requesting further clarification on this.

Read the latest updates in full here

22nd June - Our letter to DfE – further clarification required

Whilst we are thrilled that the FSM provision has been extended throughout the summer holidays, there are still key questions to be answered, to ensure the most suitable and complete provision is available for all.

On Monday 22nd June we wrote to DfE with a series of question concerning the Covid summer food fund, clarifying whether:

  • There will be a mechanism for families who become eligible for free school meals during the school holidays to apply for support
  • The Holiday Activities and Food programme (HAF) will run alongside, the Covid Summer Food Fund
  • Schools can continue to choose the best provision for their families during the summer holidays
  • Schools using alternatives to the voucher scheme will be able to claim through the exceptional costs fund

We also requested an update to guidance to reflect the new income threshold - and that the extension will remain in place through the summer holiday

Read this letter in full here

Government U-turn on free school meal holiday provision

Following weeks of campaigning from Food for Life, other partner organisations and high-profile individuals including Marcus Rashford, we are thrilled that the Government has today reversed their decision and announced the provision of free school meals over the summer holidays.

Rob Percival, Head of Policy, Soil Association says:

The announcement of a ‘Covid summer food fund’ is hugely welcome – we’re delighted that the Prime Minister has responded to our concerns. It’s completely unacceptable that so many children were at risk of hunger over the summer holidays. This fund will provide a lifeline to many families in need.”

Further clarity is now needed on how the fund will be delivered:

  • Will it be the same centralised voucher scheme?
  • Will funds be devolved to schools?
  • What support or measures will the Government put in place to make sure the vouchers are spent on healthy food?

We believe funds should be devolved to schools, to ensure direct provision to children and families who need it most -  a sentiment shared and voiced in Parliament today by Paul Maynard MP: “I want to see a much more decentralised approach to tackling holiday hunger. We do not need yet another overly bureaucratic national attempt that tries to fit our young people and communities into a one-size-fits-all solution.” 

We will be scrutinising the detail of the fund and holding the government to account for how it is spent.

Champion cooks and caterers – and next steps

School cooks and caterers have been working tirelessly throughout the Covid crisis, with many Food for Life caterers delivering healthy and high-quality meals under very difficult circumstances.

The announcement today should not be the end of the conversation. The Government must ensure that healthy and sustainable school meals are at the heart of the National Food Strategy, building on the example set by leading Food for Life caterers.

They must also ensure that Free School Meals are adequately funded in the long run, and available to all who need them the most.

Mounting pressure led to U-turn

Prior to this afternoon’s announcement (16th June), we had been urgently calling on Government to commit to free school meal provision throughout the school holidays.

We were not alone; many of our partner organisations actively campaigned on different fronts and more than 1,000 councillors had written to DfE requesting school meal provision be extended.

Legal action had been threatened by Sustain and the Good Law Project, with £14,500 raised through a Crowdfunder to cover the legal fees. Find out more here. The Biteback petition calling for holiday provision received an incredible 266,000 signatures.

Today’s debate in Parliament had been triggered by Robert Halfon, Chair of Education Select Committee. The Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield had also written to Rishi Sunak to ask him to find the money for holiday provision.

We are delighted that this collective effort of so many organisations and individuals has led to today’s confirmation of free school meal provision over the summer holidays for 1.3 million eligible children.

8th June: Updated Government guidance for school meals and FSM voucher update

Updated Government guidance promoting catered meals and Free School Meal provision

As schools return, the Department for Education has updated its guidance on school meals.

It is positive to see their emphasis on schools working with their catering teams to provide the best arrangements for safely served and prepared school meals.

We welcome the Government’s advice to schools to ensure that pupils not returning to school who are eligible for free school meals to continue to receive support.

Read more on the Government website here.

Planning guide for primary schools

The DfE’s guide for schools re-opening includes a section on school meal provision.

Again, the emphasis is on schools working closely with caterers for lunchtime arrangements which we welcome. Those pupils eligible to free school meals should have these available free of charge. The advice reiterates putting measures in place to prepare and serve food safely.

 Read the full guide here.

Our School Food Checklist for COVID-19

For schools and caterers who are seeking additional guidance on how to safely serve nutritious school food, we have co-designed the School Food Checklist for COVID-19 under the School Food Plan Alliance.

Read more here.


The voucher scheme is currently still running. The updated guidance says: “If your school catering service cannot provide meals or food parcels for children who are at home, you can continue to offer vouchers to families of eligible pupils. Before ordering vouchers, check which pupils are eligible and would be receiving benefits-related free school meals.” Read more here.

The contract with Edenred, the voucher provider, is due to expire on 21 June. We’ve called upon  DfE to confirm that :

  • the voucher scheme will be extended for those schools who need it until the end of the summer term.
  • that FSM will be made available to eligible children over the summer holidays.

We maintain that catered school meals are the best first option for school food provision. 

Sustain and Good Law Project are taking legal action to secure free school meals over the summer – an action which we support.  Read more on their website here.

Rob Percival, Head of Policy at Soil Association says:

No child should go hungry across the summer holidays. The pandemic has left many families struggling with food insecurity. The Government’s decision not to extend Free School Meal provision or vouchers across the summer holidays will mean many children will go hungry. Legal action is a necessary last resort to protect the health and wellbeing of these children and to ensure their right to food.”

Safe food provision

The guidance also recommends that schools work with “catering teams and food suppliers about the most effective ways to manage the ordering and delivery of food during this period,” including by:

  • arranging fewer food deliveries each week compared with standard periods when the school is open to all pupils
  • ordering longer shelf life products during this period, such as frozen foods or foods that can be safely stored at room temperature

More information on the updated website here

Extension of the free school meal voucher scheme to cover May half term

Following the Save Our Lunches petition we supported and the letter we co-signed to expand free school meal provision to cover all holiday periods, the Department for Education announced this week the extension of the free school meal voucher scheme to cover the May half term.

We welcome this decision, yet it came far too late for appropriate planning and provision for schools, caterers and parents.

Again, The Government has failed to recognise the benefit and need for a catered first approach, which we have been repeatedly calling for, to ensure pupils receive a nutritious, full meal at lunchtime. For some, this is the only full meal they get each day.

We urge the Department for Education to support schools and caterers to deliver a catered first approach.

We will update this page as the situation develops.

Petition to extend FSM funding across May half term and summer holidays

The Department for Education is yet to respond to the letter we co-signed with 40 other organisations to expand free school meal provision to cover all holiday periods across the whole of England until the end of August.

As the May half term approaches, action is rapidly needed.

We are supporting the Save Our Lunches petition , calling for the government to ensure the 1.3 million children who receive free school meals do not go without during the holidays. For many children, this is the only hot, full meal they get all day.

So far the petition has had over 90,000 signatures, please join us in signing here.

Government temporarily extends FSM eligibility criteria, Aldi joins supermarkets in voucher scheme & Wales guarantees FSM summer holiday funding

Free School Meal (FSM) eligibility extension

The government has published updated guidance following the announcement that the FSM eligibility criteria will be temporarily extended to some children affected by NRPF (no recourse to public funds).

The update also explains how schools can confirm their eligibility and award free school meals.

Read the government’s latest update here.

Start now

We welcome the guidance from children’s minister Vicky Ford , who has advised that schools can start delivering free school meals or food vouchers to newly-eligible pupils before they receive “evidence” of universal credit claims.

Read more here.

Aldi joins the supermarket voucher scheme

Last week (21st April) Aldi confirmed that they have signed up to the FSM national voucher scheme.

Food for Life recommends catered meals where possible, however we welcome broadening the network of stores signed up to this scheme, particularly with a more affordable supermarket for many.

Wales confirms FSM funding throughout summer holidays

Wales has become the first country in the UK to guarantee funding for children to continue to receive FSM throughout the summer holidays.

The Welsh Government confirmed on 22 April that each eligible child will receive the equivalent of £19.50 a week.

It will make £33 million available to help Local Authorities continue to provide FSM until schools re-open or up to the end of August.

More information here.

This is positive news and we now ask that central UK government guarantees FSM provision throughout the summer holidays as a matter of priority – providing reassurance for children and families across the country.

Free school meal vouchers provision over the Easter holidays

Michael Gove announced Saturday 4th April that The Government will now pay for free school meal vouchers in the school holidays.

Gove also stated that The Government is “conscious more must be done” to help children at risk and in need.

We welcome this positive step in the right direction which follows our letter to government last week raising concerns over the holiday gap.

Food for Life will continue to push for greater clarity and further updates to guidance on related issues this week. As ever, we will be pushing for a catered-first approach for free school meals where possible, over vouchers.

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to stay up to date with the latest news.

On Tuesday 31st March, the Department of Education updated the guidance relating to free school meal provision in the wake of school closures due to Coronavirus. The updates to the guidance are as follows:

  • The guidance reiterates that head teachers should speak to the school catering team or provider to see if they can prepare meals or food parcels that could be delivered to or collected by families.
  • Where meals or food parcels are not viable, the guidance says that food vouchers should be provided. The voucher scheme is now up and running, £15 per week for children eligible for benefits-related FSM, and can be spent in Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Waitrose, M&S. The Department for Education says they are exploring options for expanding use beyond these supermarkets.
  • The guidance confirms the vouchers will be provided for term time only.
  • The guidance confirms that Universal Infant Free School Meal funding will be paid to schools as normal.

Overall, we welcome the guidance as it provides clarity on some critical issues and lays out a commitment to delivering UIFSM funding. However, more is needed from the Department of Education on various fronts to ensure all children have access to good, nutritional food whilst schools are fully or partially closed.

Rob Percival, Soil Association’s Head of Food Policy said:

“This updated guidance from government is welcome. Schools and caterers are working hard to ensure that vulnerable children receive a meal, and confirmation that £15 vouchers are available will come a relief to many families. School caterers should be supported to provide food parcels and meals where possible, but the vouchers provide a necessary safety net.

Confirmation that schools will receive their UIFSM funding is also welcome, but the government should provide stronger encouragement to schools to spend this on vulnerable children and families in their community. We know that many children remain ineligible for Free School Meals, despite living in poverty. It’s important that schools and caterers do all that they can to support these children at this difficult time.

We are also dismayed that the vouchers are only available during term time. Given the extraordinary pressures that families are under, this is grossly remiss. The voucher scheme should be extended across the Easter holidays. As a matter of urgency, in the absence of any other holiday provision, the government should encourage schools to use their UIFSM funding to provide vouchers for vulnerable families as needed across the holidays. No child should  have to go hungry because of coronavirus.”

Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook for further updates on this letter and response.