The Co-op Group is starting a gift card scheme to help schools across the UK to provide free meals to eligible pupils.
Around 1.3m pupils who are eligible for free school meals are having difficulties accessing them due to school closures. Where schools are closed, or the school catering team cannot provide meals, the government is providing schools with an allowance of £15 a week per pupil to fund free school meals for eligible pupils.
However, the Co-op Group is not one of the specified retailers with which these vouchers can be redeemed and neither are the independent co-operative societies.
Through the Group’s new parallel scheme, the children’s families will have access to gift cards, which can be redeemed at Co-op Group stores. The Co-op Group gift cards will not be redeemable in stores belonging to independent co-operative societies.
A spokeswoman for the Southern Co-operative, one of the independent co-operative retail societies, said: “We are currently unable to accept Co-op Group’s plastic vouchers. We are responding to local requests for free school meal vouchers and targeting schools where they are not easily served by the national scheme to make sure they are getting the support they need.”
Education secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed to an Education Select Committee meeting on 29 April that schools will be fully reimbursed and refunded for purchasing gift cards from the Co-op Group. The government is guaranteeing school reimbursement.
This means that schools can now order gift cards directly from the convenience retailer for use in any of its 2,600 stores and they can then be remotely topped up, so parents can continuously keep the one gift card.
Children and families minister Vicky Ford said: “In addition to the national voucher scheme, our guidance for schools sets out that they can be reimbursed for costs incurred where that scheme is not suitable for their families, including where none of the eight participating supermarkets have branches nearby.
“We have been working closely with the Co-op [Group] and welcome their efforts to support families across the country. We thank all supermarkets for their hard work during these challenging times.”
Michael Fletcher, chief commercial officer at the Group, said: “Our schools are working hard to support the nation as we all pull together. It is a challenge for them to feed pupils who are eligible for free school meals when they may not be in school or in circumstances where normal school catering services have stopped because there are less pupils in attendance.”
“Our store colleagues have rolled their sleeves up to feed the nation and we think it’s important that vulnerable children who are eligible for free school meals don’t go hungry. We are delighted to be able to help and support the schools and children in the communities we serve.”
Schools seeking to join the scheme can contact [email protected]. The scheme will allow schools to top up the Co-op Group’s free school meal gift cards remotely and the parents will be able to keep the same card. The schools are also able to top up the cards at the frequency they choose while controlling the value of the top-up.
The Group has already confirmed that the 6,500 students who study at its Co-op Academies and qualify for free school meals, would get £20 to spend in Co-op food stores for every week the schools are closed.