A teacher collects food bags from a local food bank set up in Northampton, United Kingdom to distribute to children at her school during closures to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, April 2020. © 2020 David Rogers/Getty Images

(London) – Schools and charities in England have had to distribute food directly to children from poor families since the authorities closed schools to slow the spread of Covid-19 after a government-commissioned voucher system became plagued with problems, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Kingdom government’s failure to ensure that all children have access to adequate food during school closures violates their right to food.

“The government’s failure to properly ensure all pupils had sufficient food as soon as it closed schools means children have been going hungry,” said Kartik Raj, western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should scrap its reliance on the flawed voucher system it has used to replace school meals in England and instead follow good practices being developed in other parts of the UK.”

In the rush to close schools in mid-March 2020, the Department for Education announced that it planned to set up an electronic voucher system so that families of children in England who normally receive free school meals could buy food at selected supermarket chains. But the program did not start until March 31, almost two weeks later, and is deeply flawed.

Rollout problems have left schools and families in England unable to access the electronic system. Some families have waited for weeks to receive vouchers, and some were unable to use them in supermarkets once they arrived. Food bank use and reliance on emergency food parcels have increased UK-wide during this time. But education authorities in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have pioneered more effective alternatives than in England.

Teachers in poor or disadvantaged areas had expressed fears early on about children’s access to adequate nutritious food. “When news broke that schools were closing, my first concern was food – learning came second,” said Katie Barry, head teacher at St. George’s Church of England Community Primary School in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. “It feels awful to say that, but we knew not having food would be the biggest issue for families.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed food aid charities, teachers, catering professionals, and children’s rights specialists in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and analyzed data published by child food security specialists and food aid providers. The data and research strongly suggest that the government’s voucher system and other ad hoc initiatives, particularly in England, are not meeting the needs of children from low-income families or upholding their right to food and nutrition. Children across the country are being left without essential meals, despite the best efforts of schools, local authorities, and charities to plug the gap.

The Department for Education’s guidance to schools in England accompanying the voucher plan leaves unclear whether schools can be fully reimbursed for costs they may incur ensuring children have sufficient food outside of the electronic voucher program, such as food for parcels or vouchers purchased from local supermarkets. The lack of clarity effectively gives school managers incentives to use the government’s faulty electronic voucher system, even though they do not work for many families, especially those whose digital literacy, access to computers, or knowledge of English is limited.

Devolved education authorities in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland instead have opted for cash transfers, food parcels, and other systems that have provided poor families with food more quickly, effectively, and in a more dignified manner than the national government’s voucher system. In the UK, where most people have access to a bank or basic card-based account, supermarket food vouchers should only be used as a last resort and for very short periods until better alternatives for families are in place, Human Rights Watch said. Poor implementation of supermarket voucher programs can leave people without food, exacerbating the problem the vouchers are intended to solve. Even when they do work, vouchers can impose a burden on claimants and carry the risk of stigma and humiliation. Direct cash transfers and other systems better respect families’ dignity and ability to choose adequate food for their children and better protects their right to an adequate standard of living.

Schools, children’s centers, and local government caterers have used several innovative solutions to try to ensure that children do not go hungry, ranging from hot meal deliveries to lunch bags for collection, and food parcels. But these emergency efforts, developed while waiting for the vouchers or in the face of the malfunctioning system, are not sustainable solutions to a food crisis caused by ineffective central government planning.

On May 26, a representative for the UK Department for Education told Human Rights Watch that “no system of this magnitude to provide free school meals has been implemented in such a short period of time before” and that authorities and the voucher company had worked hard to reduce waiting times and improve the voucher ordering process.

There has been unprecedented demand on the country’s two major food bank networks, which report an alarming rise in the need for food parcels for families with children. Food Foundation research estimated that by April 14, food insecurity across the UK had quadrupled during the Covid-19 lockdown. The research suggested that families with children eligible for free school meals were more likely to not have enough food during the lockdown period. The Food Foundation published a further survey on May 4 that estimated that 200,000 children had to skip meals by the end of April, and that 31 percent of children entitled to free school meals did not have adequate alternatives.

The Department for Education should urgently address flaws in its supermarket voucher scheme in England while transitioning toward a cash transfer system that offers families and children greater dignity. The department should also address concerns from English schools that all reasonable expenses they incur to replace free school meals will be reimbursed by the state.

The authorities in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland should follow Wales’ lead and ensure that food is provided for children through the upcoming summer holidays, and replicate this during future planned and unplanned school closures. Authorities across the UK should consider transitioning toward a cash transfer system, following Northern Ireland’s example, offering vouchers only as a last resort.

Authorities across the UK should also share good practices in guaranteeing children’s right to food during school closures, to ensure greater protection in the event of any such crisis. Finally, the central government should abandon existing policy that can exclude children from free school meals based on their or their parents’ immigration status.

Some schools in England may reopen for limited classes in June. Schools have remained partially open to children of key workers and children considered “in need” during the Covid-19 crisis, although official data show that only a small proportion of these children have actually attended.

“The shocking levels of childhood hunger exposed by the Covid-19 crisis should prompt swift action by authorities across the UK to ensure that every child in the country has enough to eat every day, whether schools are open or not,” Raj said.

For further details about the Human Rights Watch findings, please see below.

Methodology

Between April 17 and May 12, 2020, Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth telephone/video interviews or exchanged written correspondence with 12 representatives of nongovernmental groups and academic or independent experts with knowledge of food aid, children’s rights, and education; 4 representatives of local government catering agencies; staff or volunteers from 8 food banks or food distribution organizations; staff from 9 schools or children’s centers involved in delivering food aid to children from low-income families; and statutory children’s rights oversight bodies in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

Under devolution of government in the UK, the governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are responsible for education in their jurisdictions, while the central government has responsibility in England. The central government is also the ultimate guarantor of relevant international human rights treaty obligations, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child or the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, across all parts of the UK.

Human Rights Watch contacted and received a written response from relevant national and devolved administration authorities responsible for ensuring adequate replacements for school food for children from low-income families and the company administering the supermarket voucher scheme in England. As of May 27, no reply had yet been received from the company providing the vouchers.

England’s Flawed Supermarket Voucher Scheme

In the first two weeks after schools closed on March 20, schools in England – as in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – had no option other than to put in place ad hoc measures to support children who receive free school meals. They included lunch “grab bags” to be collected at school, individual meal delivery to homes, and food parcels with supplies lasting three to seven days. Some schools that remained open to children of key workers provided hot meals on school premises to families in need. Some schools and local authorities in England gave families supermarket vouchers on their own initiative during this period to accommodate dietary restrictions, distance, or isolation to deal with Covid-19 infection.

On March 31, the Department for Education chose and recommended an electronic supermarket voucher scheme, offering £15 of vouchers per week per child for all schools in England. The voucher system, administered by a private multinational company, has been fiercely criticized for technical glitches, inadequate preparation and understaffing, difficulties and delays for school administrators using the online voucher portal, delays in families receiving them, inability to redeem them at budget supermarkets preferred by low-income families, and some supermarkets being unable to process them at checkout. The voucher provider’s website was taken offline during the Easter weekend (April 11-12) and subsequently improved.

However, in late April, Alex Rawlings, head teacher at Quarry Bank Primary School in Brierley Hill, West Midlands told Human Rights Watch that “the system doesn’t work” despite efforts by the voucher provider to fix problems: “I’ve ordered 300 vouchers successfully, but only about 50 have been received by families so far. The links the families get by email don’t work. Or worse, they get the vouchers and can’t use them at the supermarket.”

Katie Barry, head teacher at St. George’s CE Community Primary School in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, on the Park Springs housing estate in a town where multiple areas experience high levels of deprivation, called the voucher system “horrendous,” citing difficulties with the online system and problems redeeming the vouchers. “One family took £15 of vouchers to the local supermarket and were told the supermarket only accepts them in multiples of 10, so they would have to come back next week,” she said. “It may seem like a small detail, but it’s demeaning to not be allowed to use the voucher.”

Maya Wittleton, head teacher at Avonmore Primary School in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, explained her concerns about the scheme for a community in which 65 percent of the children come from families for whom English is not their main language:

A lot of parents couldn’t work out the voucher system because of limited English or computer access. So they’re coming to the school to try and log in, with staff translating. These families are struggling anyway, some have traveled from conflict situations or lived through Ebola outbreaks. Asking for food like this is revisiting their trauma. It’s genuinely distressing both for the families and school staff.

Teachers said that their schools have incurred additional costs by using their own funds to buy alternative vouchers or food for parcels. Media have reported that teachers incurred personal credit card debt to pay for essential food and supermarket vouchers for their pupils. Some schools were able to get other vouchers from their local authority contacts. Schools and individual teachers in England generally spent the money on the understanding that it would be reimbursed.

But Department of Education guidance on April 7 caused further confusion as it suggested that schools that had opted to buy food or purchase other vouchers after the national voucher scheme had been introduced would not be reimbursed. The guidance also suggested that schools would have to use their existing funds for these expenses and that the department would only outline the reimbursement process in June.

Head teachers interviewed in England expressed varying degrees of concern about their ability to be reimbursed because the national voucher system was not working properly. Those in areas with higher levels of deprivation were significantly more concerned about the impact of a budget gap for their school. Some felt they had no option other than to choose the national voucher system because of their school’s inability to incur financial risk, even if the vouchers did not work well for many families.

Andy Jolley, a school food campaigner and former school governor, said:

If a school in a poor area opts to buy food or provide local vouchers, it may not have the money and will rely on reimbursement. The [April 7] guidance says if schools have any surplus they should pay or wait to find out how to claim it back later. In essence, schools end up feeling pressured into opting for the vouchers, even though they often don’t work.

Food banks have experienced a sharp rise in families needing help since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Sabine Goodwin, coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network, said that some of its member organizations had been overwhelmed with requests from families unable to access the online voucher system. She said that the government should be “quick and responsive and move away from the voucher scheme in the long term.”

To fill the gap, particularly in the first two weeks of school closures, schools and individual teachers serving areas of high deprivation in England, for example in Bristol, Grimsby, Birmingham, Chesterfield, the London Borough of Newham, and Cheltenham, delivered food parcels and packed lunches to children who would otherwise have received a free meal at school.

Human Rights Watch interviewed staff in schools and children’s centers in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland who are involved in distributing food parcels, as well as some food redistribution charities that provide surplus food to schools, community projects, and charities that provide food aid. Although these efforts are commendable, most said that their efforts were not sustainable long-term solutions.

Alex Rawlings, from Quarry Bank Primary School in Brierley Hill, West Midlands, an urban area of high deprivation, estimated that 100 of its 370 students were entitled to free school meals at the start of the Covid-19 closures:

My concerns really are the families we were worried about anyway. We try to call them every week but it really doesn’t replace seeing a child every day. Some of our families previously accessed the local food bank, and probably continue to do so. I really worry about the families sitting quietly who won’t come forward. Ad hoc measures of buying food and taking it to their door will only do so much.

On a positive note, after initially stating that vouchers would not be issued for the then-imminent two-week Easter holiday, the April 7 guidance officially reversed this position, but made clear that this was a temporary measure.

In the same week, in response to a litigation threat, the government clarified that it would also temporarily allow children from low-income families whose immigration status precludes them from eligibility for free school meals to benefit from the vouchers. The UK government’s “No Recourse to Public Funds” policy blocks access to free school meals for children from families in which migrant parents are not eligible for publicly funded welfare benefits. The central government should abandon these restrictions on access to free school meals for all children, given the well-documented negative effect of the policy on children from migrant families.

Surge in Demand for Food Banks and Food Aid

The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic impact have exerted pressure on schools and children’s centers to provide food aid but have also increased the demand for support from food banks nationwide. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest single food bank network, said that it supported 81 percent more people during March 2020 than in March 2019. The Independent Food Aid Network, a separate group of food aid providers, reported an average increase in food aid across its system of 59 percent between February and March, compared with 3.4 percent for the same period in 2019. A third of their network experienced an increase of 100 percent or more, and 8 percent had seen increases of more than 300 percent.

Billy McGranahan, founder of Dads House, a London charity to help single parents on low incomes, said the poorest in their network “are the ones facing the onslaught of the virus…. We deliver food once a week now, sometimes twice, when families call us.” He called the situation “soul-destroying.” Dads House now runs two separate food bank distribution points in London every day, with very long queues on some days.

Joyce Leggate, chair of Kirkcaldy Foodbank, in Kirkcaldy, Fife (Scotland) said their data showed that more than twice as many families had come in for support in April compared to the previous year, mostly families with older children off from school: “These are kids who ate free school meals, went to breakfast clubs, and might even get a snack at after-school or youth clubs, all of which are closed. It highlights how close people are to food poverty. We’re a food bank and it took us by surprise.”

Gerry Fallon, who works for the local authority’s catering department in South Ayrshire, Scotland, said it is delivering food boxes rather than daily meals to almost 3,000 children:

The delivery drivers are our eyes and ears for the vulnerable. If they deliver food to a family where one child is entitled to a free school meal but they see there’s another younger child through the door who’s maybe not at school, they provide more boxes using their discretion. We err on the side of caution.

Alternatives to a National Voucher System

Given the stigma and operational difficulties associated with supermarket vouchers, devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales have turned to alternative approaches, including direct cash transfers to families. In rural areas across the UK, it may be difficult for families to travel to supermarkets that accept vouchers.

Scotland made available £30 million in a Covid-19 Food Fund, part of which is earmarked for free school meal replacements and transferred to local authorities to use appropriately, through meals, food parcels, vouchers, or cash. Campaigners in Scotland have previously advocated greater use of cash transfers. Scotland’s children’s rights commissioner, Bruce Adamson, said that in terms of dignity, he strongly favors cash transfers, accompanied by active outreach by schools to vulnerable children and their families. A representative of the Scottish government confirmed to Human Rights Watch on May 22 that it had more than doubled its Welfare Fund budget to allow local authorities to make crisis grants, and that it was now “promoting a ‘cash-first’ response to food insecurity.”

In Northern Ireland, the communities and education ministers both acted swiftly, before the central government had even set up a voucher system, for £27 cash every 2 weeks to the guardian of each of the 97,000 children in the region receiving free school meals. Northern Ireland’s children’s rights commissioner, Koulla Yiasouma, said the system is less complicated and ensures greater dignity, and that the authorities are taking steps to ensure that the “small but significant” number of families who do not have bank accounts can receive the money in another way. On May 21, Northern Ireland’s education minister announced that families without bank accounts had all received backdated cash transfers, and that asylum-seeking families in Northern Ireland, previously excluded from the system, were receiving additional funds on their spending cards.

In Wales, education authorities initially announced a £7 million fund for local authorities and schools to provide free school meal replacements. On April 21, the Welsh Department for Education and Skills opted out of the national voucher scheme, announced a further £33 million to continue into the summer holidays, and issued fresh guidance allowing local authorities to decide whether they provide food, issue vouchers locally, or make direct cash transfers to families. Cardiff Council, with approximately 12,400 children receiving free school meals across 125 schools, began cash transfers to parents who chose to receive them on April 27.

By contrast to these approaches which provide cash transfers based on existing bank records or developing new systems to facilitate them, the UK Department for Education told Human Rights Watch on May 26 that “in England, schools hold email and postal addresses for the majority of parents and carers, however the Department for Education does not hold bank details of parents. This means that direct payments was not a viable option.”

Hunger During School Vacations

UK authorities should use the lessons of the Covid-19 crisis to address ongoing cyclical childhood hunger during school vacations. Families already experiencing food insecurity during school vacations are likely to bear more of the economic impact of the Covid-19 closures, including through subsequent loss of employment and income.

Children’s rights campaigners, right to food activists, parliamentarians, and academics have long called for providing food year-round to ensure that an estimated 3 million children from low-income families across the UK do not go hungry during their school vacations.

Previous communication between Human Rights Watch and the UK Department for Education about its pilot projects for food provision in a limited number of deprived areas of England during the summer vacation in 2018 and 2019 highlighted the uncertainty about whether the oversubscribed pilot programs would continue or receive funding to be replicated more widely. On May 26, the UK Department for Education confirmed in writing to Human Rights Watch that it would renew £9m in funding for another round of limited holiday food provision programs in summer 2020. No public announcement has yet been made confirming this, and a promised assessment of previous pilot programs has not yet been published.

The Welsh government is the first in the UK to commit to continuing to fund free school meals through summer 2020, with families of children eligible for them set to receive £19.50 per child per week until the end of August, recognizing that the Covid-19 pandemic was likely to aggravate existing financial difficulties poor families face during school holidays. In Scotland, a few of the 32 individual local authorities have begun providing food to children year-round, and anti-poverty and children’s rights campaigners are calling for other local governments and the Scottish government to follow suit. On May 21, Northern Ireland’s education minister confirmed that cash transfers would end on June 30, and that it was up to the region’s devolved power-sharing government to decide how to fund solutions to address food poverty and holiday hunger. In a May 22 letter to Human Rights Watch, Northern Ireland education authorities confirmed that they were in discussion with other departments about how to “address the impending ‘holiday hunger’ over the summer when direct payments stop at the end of the school term.”

The Right to Food in Human Rights Law

The right to food is enshrined in international human rights law treaties that the UK has signed and is generally understood as part of the right to an adequate standard of living and linked to the right to health. The right to food is contained in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the latter signed by the UK in 1968 and ratified in 1976. Measures to ensure adequate, nutritious food form part of the right to health of all children as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed by the UK in 1990 and ratified in 1991. Guidance from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, published in 2013, clarifies what states should do.

Additional protections in international human rights law for women and girls who are pregnant or breastfeeding and people with disabilities may apply to some children. However, because the rights to food, an adequate standard of living, and health – like most other socioeconomic rights – have not yet been incorporated into UK domestic law, children who face violations of these basic rights as a result of governmental policy decisions currently have no legal avenue to hold the government to account on the basis of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Human Rights Watch has said that the right to food should be incorporated in domestic law, as part of its research documenting the growth of food poverty in the UK in the context of social security cuts and when the issue for crisis food supply for the country’s poorest residents arose during the Brexit process.

Update May 29: After publication on May 28, we received a brief written response from the company providing the voucher program in England.