It was the 4th week of lock down when I started to hear concerns from residents around the issue of Supermarket Vouchers for those children eligible for FSM (Free School Meals). The concerns were around delays in obtaining vouchers from Edenred and around the quality of food being issued to children either as a hamper or lunches. Some food hampers were out of date, clearly past their sell by date, bruised fruit and yet was this all our most needy families could hope for? I initially thought some schools may be obtaining out of date food and passing this off to vulnerable families. Making money out of a pandemic is like ‘red rag to a bull’ for me, so I was on a mission. In fact, the situation was likely to be schools were getting desperate in not obtaining vouchers and were doing whatever they could to get through the chaos that comes when the country experiences it’s first pandemic in 100+ years.
I was accused of ‘scare mongering and not worthy of someone claiming to be a leading member of our community’. I’ve never claimed that, rather all I was doing was trying to support families in poverty in Harlow who were becoming quite desperate. It’s the day job of being a Councillor, or so I thought. Some residents had been furloughed based on their basic wage and not their combined income with overtime that they were used to, some were struggling with Universal Credit and some were only just realising just how important Free School Meals were for their children.
"Making money out of a pandemic is like ‘red rag to a bull’ for me, so I was on a mission." Councillor Frances Mason
I was in regular contact with Councillors across Essex who were experiencing similar problems with Edenred, the company commissioned to deliver the Supermarket Voucher system. I was raising the matter with our own MP Robert Halfon and Cllr Mark Ingall, the leader of Harlow Council, supported me throughout this campaign.
On the eight week of lockdown I completed a survey and many schools across Harlow took part. This highlighted that 20% of schools were aware of children experiencing poverty in Harlow. The survey showed that some schools obtained food through the Foodbank anticipating problems with the new system, other schools purchased their own Supermarket Vouchers to avoid their children being adversely affected. I was in contact with Essex County Council who clarified ‘2509 children in the Harlow district are entitled to receive a free school meal due to their low income’. This number didn’t include key stage 1 children who automatically are entitled to a free school meal. That’s a lot of children overall.
On 20/05/20 The Labour Councillor Group wrote to MP Robert Halfon seeking an urgent solution to this issue and it was confirmed that Free School Meals would continue for the half term holiday.
On 05/06/20 I wrote again on the issue of Free School Meals becoming a Lottery for children if the Government opted for local areas to bid for summer holiday activities and meal clubs. It was clear across Harlow families from all economic backgrounds may be facing job uncertainty, lower incomes and concerns around mounting debt.
It was great news to hear Footballer Marcus Rashford talk passionately about the importance of support he received as a young boy growing up and the importance of Free School Meals. To his credit, MP Robert Halfon did the rounds on breakfast TV to promote the cause further. The U-turn on this issue by Boris Johnson does show we had a point. As local Councillors, we were in it for the long haul and all we can do is chip away until we get our point across, that’s not scare mongering, rather it is doing the right thing to support families in poverty. The Leader of Harlow Council, Cllr Mark Ingall and the Labour Councillors across Essex campaigned on this important issue early on in this pandemic and by working together across county we can sleep tonight knowing that the most vulnerable children in our communities will be fed during the summer holiday in this pandemic.
Cllr for Toddbrook
Portfolio Holder for Governance, Equality and Diversity
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