Free School Meals Payment Scheme

On 26 March, the Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey and Education Minister Peter Weir announced plans to make sure families do not experience hardship as a result of schools closing.

The new scheme will see the introduction of direct payments to families whose children would usually benefit from a school meal. Almost 97,000 children in Northern Ireland are entitled to free school meals.

Families receive £2.70 per child per day for each day of term the schools are closed. This money will be paid to families on a fortnightly basis. The previous batch of payments were made w/c 27th April to over 54,500 families, representing almost 98,000 children. As additional bank details were received by the Education Authority, further families are now on the system for payment. Nearly 55,000 families, representing almost 99,000 children, received payments into bank accounts on 13th May.  As more bank details are received, families will be added to the system and figures will be updated. In addition a further 1663 payees representing 2549 children have had cheques posted to them.

Frequently asked questions

Q.       How do I apply for this financial assistance?

A.       There is no need to apply.   For the vast majority of families the payment will come automatically into bank accounts.  For those families for whom the Education Authority (EA) does not hold bank accounts, the EA will send out text messages early next week– only to those families.  They will then be directed to an online form on the EA website.  There is no need for anyone to contact the Education Authority.

Q.       If schools are closed until June will the funding continue over the summer months?

A.       It is not the intention to continue the funding over the summer holiday period.  However, we do recognise the need for support for vulnerable children over holiday periods and there is a need for a wider strategic approach to deal with so called “holiday hunger” - that is something the Department for Communities will work through with the Department for Education over the coming weeks. 

Q.       How do you know children will benefit from this financial assistance?

A.       The vast majority of parents will ensure their children receive the care and nourishment their children need.  We do recognise however there are some families who, for whatever reason, need extra support and that some children may not benefit from the funding and will need a safety net – that is why the Department for Communities plans will include support for these very vulnerable children and families.

Q.       Why did you not just give people vouchers?

A.       We did consider vouchers, as is happening in some other jurisdictions, however we know that the fastest, most efficient way of ensuring families do not face hardship as a result of schools being closed and therefore no free school meals being available, is a direct payment into their bank account. 

Vouchers would work if there was easy access for people to the large supermarkets but it is much more difficult in rural country grocery stores or where there are small independent retailers.  With the need for social distancing and the message to ‘Stay at Home’ we did not want people travelling distances to a supermarket which took the vouchers. 

Q.       How much will this cost?

A.       Costs will of course be dependent on how long the schools are closed and not able to provide school meals.  Should schools be closed until the end of June we expect the costs to be nearly £19M.  However, if schools reopen before that then funding will stop immediately. 

Q.       Why can you not just take the money that would normally be paid to the Education Authority or schools for school meals and use that? 

A.       The vast majority of the cost of a school meal is made up of staffing costs and maintenance of school canteens.  Indeed the actual cost of a school meal is around 70p.  During this crisis we need to ensure catering staff continue to be paid therefore the free school meals funding will continue to go to EA to meet those costs.   We must also remember that the EA and schools will lose income as there are no pupils paying for school meals – this helps to offset the costs associated with running a school meals service. 

Q.  If food costs are only around 70p why are you paying £2.70?

A.       Parents are not able to bulk buy food stuffs in the way the EA or schools can therefore it would not be possible for parents to create a nourishing meal for around 70p.

Q.       School meals in secondary schools cost £2.80 – why are you not giving parents that amount?

A.       Costs of schools meals vary between Nursery (£2.50); primary (£2.60) and Secondary (£2.80).  The figure of £2.70 across all sectors was selected to ensure a reasonable, consistent amount could be paid to all families in receipt of free school meals.

Q.       If someone has just been made unemployed will they be entitled to free school meals if they have school age children?

A.       Eligibility to Free School Meals is not changing, and anyone who meets the criteria and is in receipt of any of the qualifying benefits should apply for FSM in the normal way.  The Department will work closely with the Department for Communities to identify new claimants with school aged children and encourage them to apply for free school meals. While schools remain closed during normal term time direct payments will be made for FSM.

Q.       Will those children of key workers who are currently in school receive any help?

A.       If those families are in receipt of FSM they will receive a direct payment.

Q.       What safety nets are in place for more vulnerable children?

The EA youth services is supporting the Department for Communities to ensure food is available to vulnerable families and continue to identify and support children who would otherwise be entitled to Free School Meals but who, for whatever reason, cannot avail of the support that has been put in place.

Anyone critically in need of food can use the Freephone COVID-19 Community Helpline to be connected to various means of support, including volunteers who can collect shopping, or community groups and food banks who can provide help. The Helpline can be can be accessed by telephone on 0808 802 0020; email covid19@adviceni.net or text ACTION to 81025. It is available 7 days a week, 9am to 5pm.

Q.       Why have I not received a payment?

A.       This is a major undertaking, involving thousands of payments in a completely new package of support and the Education Authority will make every effort to get these payments out to families as quickly as possible.  We would ask everyone to bear with us as not all families may get the funding at the same time.  We want to assure people that they will receive payments which will be backdated.

Q.       I am worried about supplying my bank account details.

A.       We intend to make this scheme as secure as possible. People should also be on the lookout for scams and we have taken advice from the PSNI.  The Education Authority has sent a text message to those families for whom it does not hold bank details and will direct them to an online form on the EA website.  Do not respond by Text

Q.       I do not have a bank account, how will I receive the money?

A.       If at all possible, you should open a bank account and provide the Education Authority with your bank details along with name, National Insurance number, address with postcode and details of child(ren) immediately by emailing  MealsandUniforms-Omagh@eani.org.uk or visit https://www.eani.org.uk/getfsm.

Free school meals are provided to ensure that eligible children are provided with a hot, nutritious meal suitable as the main meal of the day while at school. The aim of the direct payment scheme is to ensure children do not go without food during school closures. While direct payments to bank accounts is the most effective way of doing this for the vast majority of parents we recognise that not all families would be able to receive direct payments.

Therefore we are working closely with the Department for Communities to ensure food is available to vulnerable families and continue to identify and support children who would otherwise be entitled to Free School Meals but who, for whatever reason, cannot avail of the support that has been put in place.

Anyone critically in need of food can use the Freephone COVID-19 Community Helpline to be connected to various means of support, including volunteers who can collect shopping, or community groups and food banks who can provide help. The Helpline can be can be accessed by telephone on 0808 802 0020; email covid19@adviceni.net or text ACTION to 81025. It is available 7 days a week, 9am to 5pm.

Q.  I didn’t get my bank details to the EA in time for the first payment run – will I get my payments backdated?

A. If you were entitled to free school meals on 23 March when schools closed, you will be entitled to direct payments into your bank account to cover from 23 March (or the date of entitlement for new applicants) until 30 June or until schools reopen. However any backdated payment due will not be paid until after 30 June or after schools reopen. We would ask everyone to bear with us as not all families may get the funding at the same time but can be reassured that they will receive payments which will be backdated.​

Q.      I received my payment but no remittance advice. What should I do?

A.      A remittance advice was not issued to everyone so do not worry if you did not receive one.  You do not need to do anything.

 

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