Parents of children who are entitled to free school meals will now receive a weekly food voucher worth £15, to ensure youngsters don't go hungry while their place of education is shut due to coronavirus.

The national voucher scheme will allow parents to buy food for their child either online with redeemable codes, or with physical gift cards usable in supermarkets.

The vouchers can be spent on food at a range of shops including Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S, with the Department for Education working to get more on the scheme.

Schools can still cook meals which can be delivered to homes or collected by parents, the government says, but where this is not possible families will be provided with a £15 voucher worth more than school meals.

During term time the government pays each school a flat rate of £2.30 per child per meal, equalling £11.50.

Families will be given more than the rate paid to schools for free school meals because the government says it recognises "that families will not be buying food in bulk and may therefore incur higher costs".

Schools, which will be emailed today with details of the scheme, will be able to order vouchers individually online and have a code sent via email to each family.

Sainsbury's says it is 'proud' to be part of the national voucher scheme. Credit: PA

Alternatively they'll be able to arrange a bulk order of multiple codes and receive an excel spreadsheet to help schools organise sending on to a family, or create an eGift card for a preferred supermarket to be posted to a family if parents cannot get online.

When the government ordered the closure of all schools, except in special circumstances, it said it would be providing ongoing support to the 1.3 million children eligible for free school meals.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he recognised how the "unprecedented" move of closing schools is "dramatically affecting the lives of many families".

He said: "No child should go hungry as a result of the measures introduced to keep people at home, protect the NHS and save lives.

"That’s why we are launching this scheme to make sure children who usually benefit from free school meals still have access to healthy and nutritious meals while they are not attending school."

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, welcomed the national voucher scheme.

He said: "This new system fills in one of the remaining gaps in the complex jigsaw puzzle of provision that has arisen from the Covid-19 crisis.

"There may be some kinks to work out of the scheme, especially as it has been developed at pace, but at least there is some certainty available now."

The boss of Sainsbury's, Mike Coupe, said: "We are proud to be involved in the government’s brilliant initiative, to help provide meals to school children as part of our ongoing commitment to feed the nation."

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