HAMPSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL has set out a financial support package to help schools cover meal costs and contribute towards uniforms for vulnerable families this winter.
It comes as the local authority calls for adequate government funding for school meals as the costs of ingredients, energy and staff wages increase.
To avoid significant losses, the county council school meal provider, HC3S, is being forced to increase prices by 20p per day from October 31.
The increase will have an impact on parents who pay for pupils’ meals, as well as individual schools. While schools are funded by the government to provide Universal Infant Free school meals for Key Stage 1 pupils (those in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2), this funding is no longer fit to cover the full associated costs.
Schools also cover the costs of free meals for eligible older pupils from their wider funding, and so the increase will place additional pressure in all areas.
The announcement follows a call from LACA, the school catering industry body, for additional funding from Government to help providers tackle increased costs: LACA survey finds 1.8m children face worsening school meals due to rising food costs | LACA
Hampshire County Council is now set to step in with a package of support to help schools bridge this gap in funding over the winter, while continuing to encourage paying parents of older children to check their eligibility for free school meals. The funding being made available will also be targeted to help parents struggling with school uniform costs.
Councillor Roz Chadd, Executive Member for Children’s Service and Deputy Leader of the County Council, said: “The decision to increase the price of a school meal is regrettable but unavoidable and reflects the continuing increase in food, energy and other costs nationally, with which Government funding has not kept pace.
“Our focus now is on doing all that we can to bolster our support for vulnerable families over the challenging winter period and ensure that schools are adequately equipped to cover these additional costs.
“In response to this challenge, over the winter period we will be supporting those schools where further financial help is most needed to cover the increased costs, and where there is greatest need for vulnerable families. Moreover, we will be providing funding to schools to help families facing hardship with the costs of school uniform as the colder weather approaches. We are currently working through this detail and will be in touch with schools in due course.
“All of this comes alongside a wide range of other ongoing support in Hampshire to address the rising cost of living, including community pantries which provide food at a lower cost than supermarkets; grants to support community projects helping vulnerable families; and our Holiday Activities and Food programme which provides enriching activities and nutritious meals to eligible children over school holidays.”
And Councillor Steve Forster, Executive Member for Commercial Strategy, Estates and Property, said: “Our school catering service works extremely hard to keep prices as low as possible whilst also delivering a healthy and balanced two-course hot meal.
“HC3S is not profit-making and seeks only to cover costs. However, in common with the majority of school caterers nationally, HC3S is experiencing significant increased costs including food and pay, with food prices expected to escalate further.
“HC3S has negotiated with suppliers to keep food costs below current inflation rates, but despite all efforts, the current meal price is not sustainable without reducing the nutritional quality or portion size of our meals. That is not fair to children, especially those from households that are experiencing financial hardship, when the provision of a hot meal is vital.
“We appreciate these are extremely challenging times for everyone and this is not a decision that has been taken lightly but we remain determined to provide a high-quality lunch to Hampshire’s children and young people to support their classroom learning. We are reminding families that free school meals are provided to all Key Stage 1 pupils, and that income related free school meals are available to older children whose families claim certain benefits. Furthermore, the County Council has written to the Secretary of State for Education setting out the case for adequate funding levels to support the provision of healthy school meals.”
Nearly all of Hampshire’s 426 primary schools and many of the special and secondary schools use HC3S to provide their school catering.
Families can check if they are entitled for free school meals on the HC3S website – Free school meals | Hampshire County Council (hants.gov.uk).
PICTURED BY ALAMY: School meals continue to increase in price as the country’s economic woes worsen