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A Lochaber community group has now distributed around 1,700 free lunch packs for local school children amidst fears fewer eligible children are receiving the school meal vouchers being issued during the coronavirus lockdown than received free school meals previously.
Last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that all eligible school pupils were to receive free school meals during the summer break to help tackle food poverty.
By the time the summer school holidays begin, Highland saidCouncil said it will have issued 67,500 vouchers across the Highlands, amounting to more than £1m.
But John Fotheringham, chairman of the Spean Bridge, Roy Bridge and Achncarry SCIO (Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation), is worried that the numbers being talked about are misleading.
‘We don’t know how many more children in the Highlands are actually benefiting from these awards during these unprecedented times, indeed it is possible less children are receiving free school vouchers than those that were formerly getting free school meals,’ Mr Fotheringham told us.
‘Normally, primaries one to three and those children from families with low income get free school meals in term time and Highland Council receives the monies through a block grant or by some other means.’
The SCIO’s 1,700 packed lunches have been delivered to up to 70 local primary school children in the SCIO area since April 22.
These are distributed by volunteers three days a week thanks to grants from the Scottish Government Supporting Communities Fund and the Lund Trust.
The council said free school meal provision during the COVID-19 pandemic is targeted and is being paid to P1-3 pupils in receipt of school clothing grants and all P4-S6 young people who meet the national qualifying criteria.
‘Around 4,500 pupils in Highland are receiving fortnightly vouchers to the equivalent of £15 per pupil, per week. This includes an average weekly increase of 50 pupils each week since lockdown began,’ said a council spokesperson.
Councillor Ben Thompson (Caol and Mallaig) told us: ‘The Scottish Government guidance clearly says free school meal provision is for eligible children only. The council continues to pay staff who would normally supply school meals without any school meal income to offset that.
‘In addition the high value of the vouchers paid out compared to the cost of serving meals in schools means that financially the council is actually worse off. There is no free school meal money not being paid out.’
But Mr Fotheringham still worries there will be some children and their families falling through the net.
‘Our volunteers on the ground during lockdown recognised that there was an issue with Highland Council not providing vouchers for children in Primaries 1-3 unless their parents could prove they had been made redundant or furloughing brought a significant loss in income,’ he explained.
‘There is a perceived stigma by some about involving Highland Council and their Social Work Department, about families’ finances, and others had difficulties due to the speed of the lockdown to produce the paperwork needed by the agencies.
‘We felt by supporting families in this way, those who were in need might also ask for essential food packages. But I don’t think we envisaged either the volume of take up or popularity.
‘We explained to parents we were doing this with money we got from the government so people didn’t feel it was charity. We were expecting to maybe only need to be helping 20 or 30 kids but that mushroomed to over 70 children out of a school of 125.
‘I cannot understand why they just didn’t continue with the agreed format in the pandemic and offer support to additional children.
‘We don’t intend to stop till we know Highland Council will reinstate their obligation to P1-3 children in the local primary school once children go back to school in August.’