A FUNDING package worth £2.8m will help provide free school meals to nearly 2,750 disadvantaged New Forest children during the Christmas holidays.
The amount has been handed to Hampshire County Council by the government, which has pledged an overall £170m for the nation’s vulnerable families as part of its Covid Winter Grant Scheme.
The U-turn was in response to the campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford to help disadvantaged children get free school meals which were controversially not provided during the October half term.
The government has also said its Holiday Activities and Food programme will be extended to cover the Easter, summer and Christmas breaks in 2021 too.
It has promised to increase Healthy Start payments, which help expectant mothers and those with young children on low incomes and in receipt of benefits to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, from April 2021.
HCC leader Cllr Keith Mans said that the council had distributed funding during the October half term via the voluntary and community sector to support the most vulnerable families in Hampshire.
He said: “While our support to help address the immediate problem in Hampshire has been important, we made it clear to government that a proper solution was needed to this national issue.
“This recent announcement is very welcome news for the hardest-hit Hampshire families – particularly for those specifically and significantly affected by the pandemic, and for
whom the challenges of winter will be especially difficult this year.”
Cllr Mans added: “With funding to be allocated locally, we’ve already set to work in earnest on developing plans that will enable us to support those in the greatest need in Hampshire.
“While much of the focus to date has been on supporting families whose children are eligible for free school meals, we will be exploring the possibility of extending the assistance to families of children being supported by a social worker, and those where we are delivering early help interventions to prevent families reaching social crisis.”
When the free school meals issue went to parliament before the half term, it was voted against by all of the three local MPs – Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch), Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) and Julian Lewis (New Forest East).
Dr Lewis told the A&T: “I was prepared to accept the government’s assurances that they were supporting needy families by means of large increases in benefits.
“Now that they have apparently changed tack, the issue has been resolved.”
Neither Sir Desmond nor Sir Chris responded to request for comment by the A&T on the government’s new policy.