Somerset County Council’s response to free school meals falls short, claim local Liberal Democrats.
Over the weekend we reported here that David Fothergill, Leader of Somerset County Council, had announced a welcome £125,000 boost to help Somerset’s children who are entitled to a free school meal over the half-term period.
However, local Lib Dems have responded by saying that, unfortunately, unlike other County Councils, this is not direct support for families in urgent need but it appears to be a link to a mapping site established by others that ‘needlessly adds layers of complexity, whilst failing to address urgent need’.
Highbridge Town Cllr Helen Groves says: “Locally, we have an outstanding community. The response of individuals, community groups and businesses within our area has been incredible and has provided a lifeline for some of the most vulnerable people in our
“I was delighted to see our County Council respond as others have with a commitment to ensure Somerset’s Children do not go without food – unfortunately it has become clear this is not the commitment to direct support that people had assumed.”
“The telephone number issued within the press statement is the Somerset Covid support line. Anyone calling this number will then be directed to their District Council.”
“The District Council will direct the caller to call the County Council’s direct line. This provides a number of options but, unfortunately, there is no option included which refers to free school meals so it is likely residents will select ‘option 4’ which is ‘everything other’.”
“At this point the caller will be directed to Childrens’ Services who cannot offer any assistance themselves but will provide web site addresses which could have been found on SCC’s web site in the beginning. These links are third party mapping web sites which allow the user to find their nearest community group or business offering a free lunch.”
“Childrens’ Services advise that, should this not resolve the issue, the resident should call back. Should the resident need to do so they will then be directed to local Covid support groups. Many Covid support groups cannot offer food. In such circumstances they will attempt to refer to C.A.B, housing providers, and village agents in the hope a food bank
voucher may be issued. This is a circular referral process which adds stress whilst failing to address urgent need.”
“For a multitude of reasons, lack of internet access, distance, work commitments, stigma and many more, many families are unable to access the community support available. I absolutely welcome the funding commitment of £125,000 from the County Council but fear it is failing to address its intended objective. Children who were falling through the gaps, still are.”
“The County Council, as LEA, has a register of every child entitled to a free school meal and it is the only body that has the information and resources to ensure no child is left hungry. Retrospective funding of community endeavours is not addressing the issue.”
“Whilst understanding our central government threw the problem at the county and that the issues of funding are not as straightforward as has been portrayed, other county councils have directly assisted. Somerset has not.”
“I would ask the County Council to make clear to residents that there is no financial help available to them for this half term period in the form of vouchers or otherwise. Failing to do so is causing many vulnerable families needless distress and perversely adding complexity and delays for those who may benefit from community support. And to consider a means of assisting those who cannot access other help.”
Cllr Jane Lock, leader of the County Council Liberal Democrat Group, adds: “We welcome the willingness of our colleagues to commit funding to ensure Somerset’s children are protected through this time of national crisis, but we must ensure funding is directed effectively.”
“The procedures put in place by the County Council are complex, convoluted and burdensome. This is no way to deal with vulnerable families in their time of need. The response of our communities has been incredible but we must ensure we have much improved and simpler mechanisms in place to ensure families are not left in this position over the Christmas period – and subsequently if need be.”
A spokesman for Somerset County Council said: “Anyone who needs food should contact our Coronavirus Helpline on 0300 790 6275 and select Option 1. Every person, family and situation is different so we will look to connect you with the right support, which could be through partner organisations, community groups or other resources. We have meals available through our Village Agents which can be delivered to those in need.”