Extra support to ensure vulnerable children do not go hungry

Devon County Council has answered pleas to try and ensure the neediest children and families do not go hungry.

It comes [after] a petition has been started by East Devon councillor Joe Whibley to Devon County Council calling for the council to provide free school meal vouchers, for those pupils in receipt of term – time free school meals, throughout the school holidays.

Daniel Clark www.devonlive.com

Labour’s plea for the free school meals scheme to be extended over the holidays to stop children going hungry was rejected last week by the Government.

But since then, several councils, including Plymouth City Council, have announced schemes to help during the October half-term.

Eligible families in Plymouth will receive an additional payment over the half-term period to enable them to buy a meal for their children.

And on Monday (October 26), the County Council said it will continue to work with district councils to ensure hardship support is available to vulnerable children and families across the county this winter and pledged extra funding to ensure no child goes hungry.

It follows pleas from Liberal Democrat and Independent councillors, as well as a petition, that called for the council to help provide free school meals during the holidays.

Cllr John Hart, Leader of Devon County Council, said: “We have already allocated £1.7 million this year through a shared hardship fund to ensure that the most needy children and families in Devon do not go hungry.

“I have also instructed that the county council holds a further £100,000 in reserve for additional hardship funding this winter.

“Devon is one of the largest local authorities in the country and, at the start of this crisis, we recognised that there would need to be very local solutions, so we’ve worked in close cooperation with our eight district councils as Team Devon throughout the pandemic.

“Devon County Council shared £1 million of its funding between the districts alongside a further £700,000 from the Government. This is currently supporting grants to people and families suffering hardship across Devon.

“Around £600,000 of this is still available and I would urge anyone who needs help providing food for their children to apply for this extra assistance through their district council’s helpline.

“The individual district councils have used the cash in different ways to best help their local communities. For example some have funded the voluntary sector and others have issued vouchers or provided food directly using their helplines as a point of contact.”

Over the weekend, Government Ministers have referred to the £63 million that was allocated to local councils and suggested this was for free school meals, but Cllr Hart said: “This money was distributed in June and was intended to ensure that no one – children or adults – who was badly affected by the pandemic should go hungry. That money has already been spent in Devon in supporting the most vulnerable.

“In addition we have provided support to a range of community organisations to help fund support, wellbeing and food in recent months and we will continue to work with organisations around food sustainability and food insecurity.

“With key partners we have developed comprehensive plans to provide further emergency response for the most vulnerable should parts of Devon experience lockdown or further restrictions.

“I am now writing to the Government to outline that due to our financial position we are limited in our ability to provide this support beyond the spring.

“We therefore urgently call on the Government to properly fund support for all vulnerable people in Devon affected by the financial impacts of the pandemic.

“Meanwhile, I want to pay tribute to the local communities, shops, pubs, cafes and restaurants across Devon that are doing their bit in their locality to provide food for children over this half-term.

“Their efforts can only enhance the work that the county council is continuing to do in partnership with the districts and others.”

Devon’s Liberal Democrats had called for the County Council to reverse its “mean minded” refusal to provide free school meals during the holidays.

The impact of the lockdown and COVID-19 on many families across the county is not of their making and money is increasingly tight, especially for those affected by reduced hours, lost jobs, or furlough arrangements, said Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Alan Connett.

He added that the issue of holiday hunger was highlighted at County Hall back in the summer of 2018 and since then nothing has changed with no action taken except put a link on the county website to highlight where families might get help – but that link does not work today.

Cllr Connett said: “At a time when Marcus Rashford can be honoured by the Queen for his campaign to tackle hunger in children and more councils across the country are now saying they will help, the best Devon can do is ‘signpost’ to foodbanks, pubs and cafes providing free meals.

“No child should go hungry in Devon, this is another holiday when that is likely to happen in Devon. It’s mean minded.”

Independent councillor Martin Shaw had asked the Leader of Devon County Council to provide school meals for children in need of them during the half-term holiday.

The response given, Cllr Shaw said, was that the demands on funds were too tight to consider funding the scheme.

Cllr Shaw added: “The cost of providing this support at half term and Christmas would not be huge, in the big scheme of things, but there are children in every area of Devon who really need this support.

“Since the Government are not providing free school meals for Devon children who need them this half-term, Seaton community group Re:store Axe Valley has set up a scheme to provide them, with the aim of operating at Christmas too. A crowdfunding page has been set up, which is on course to raise £1,000 and I am urging every resident who can afford it to donate.

“I have given the scheme £1,500 from my County Councillor’s Locality Budget, as I can think of few things more important than ensuring that all children are properly fed during the current crisis.”

It comes a petition has been started by East Devon councillor Joe Whibley to Devon County Council calling for the council to provide free school meal vouchers, for those pupils in receipt of term – time free school meals, throughout the school holidays.

Cllr Whibley said: “The Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend free school meal vouchers to children in need throughout the school holidays was unsuccessful in parliament yet several local councils have decided to take on that cost and responsibility, as have local businesses and charities.

“This petition seeks to urge Devon County Council to do the same thing, and look to cover its costs by lobbying central government to cover the subsequent onward costs.

“No child deserves to go hungry, and we must ensure we do all we can to help local children get fed regularly, term time or not.”

If 6,000 people sign the petition, then under the constitution of the council, it will automatically trigger a debate at the next scheduled full council meeting.

The petition runs until November 24, so if the signatures were reached, then December 3’s full council meeting would see it debated.

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