More than 15,000 Devon children will receive food vouchers this Christmas as part of a £1million county council programme combat holiday hunger.
Families in need will be issued vouchers which can be redeemed with major supermarkets during the festive break.
The initiative will benefit youngsters currently receiving free school meals, eligible pre-school tots and college sixth formers.
Devon County Council (DCC) has pledged to splash another £1million in the new year to cover half-term and Easter holidays.
Councillor Roger Croad, cabinet member for communities, made the announcement at the authority’s December meeting.
Members were told that the number of children in receipt of free school meals had risen from 12,680 in January to 14,473 in October.
There has also been a significant increase in the number of successful requests to register for the scheme.
Cllr Croad said: “We are committed to providing a universal offer to those families currently relying on school meals.
“In addition to issuing the vouchers directly, we’ll also be providing them to our Early Help teams, children’s centres, food networks and district councils who will be able to help vulnerable families who may not be eligible for free school meals.”
The vouchers will mainly be made available to parents digitally and can be converted to spend with stores including Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsburys, Asda, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose.
DCC will provide a basic ‘food box’ facility for mums and dads without email or those unable to utilise the digital vouchers.
Cllr Croad added: “We want to make sure that no child in Devon goes hungry this Christmas. We will be distributing vouchers to the major supermarkets so parents can redeem them, or there are alternative arrangements.
“The easiest thing to do would have been to put the money straight into bank accounts, but I didn’t want to do that as it may lead to a minority of feckless parents squandering the money on cigarettes and booze and goodness knows what else, so the vouchers are the next best thing.”
He added that the council has commissioned Devon Community Foundation to rapidly form a series of ‘food networks’ across the county.
The ambition is to develop or align to at least one network per district area before Christmas.
Networks, which will include community kitchens, food banks, charities, cafes and pubs, will initially be asked to facilitate a food response until Easter 2021.
Cllr Croad said: “In the longer-term, it is hoped that these networks will continue to develop and sustain in order to support the council in its wider ambitions around food, particularly in relation to sustainability, local production, good nutrition and health, and food security.
“We have seen an overwhelming response from communities and voluntary and community organisations already this year.
“An investment in these emerging networks and the great organisations within them will provide timely and much-needed funding and coordination.”
Cllr Rob Hannaford, leader of the Labour Group, said: “This is a huge sigh of relief for many families, especially those who will no longer have to starve some days so their children can eat.
“The next step is to secure free school meals being extended to all families in receipt of Universal Credit.”
Parents and carers of children currently receiving free school meals are being sent letters and emails with information about how to access their vouchers.
Motion for Devon ‘food strategy’
Members also unanimously agreed to back a motion for a Devon ‘food strategy’ to be put in place.
It was put forward by Cllr Su Aves, who said: “Like so many who helped in their neighbourhoods to support those most vulnerable during the lockdowns, you all will have realised how awful it is that so many of our residents, of all ages, were without enough food.
“Anyone of us could find ourselves without the funds to cover all our bills.
“The list of food banks across Devon seems endless and, together with the community larders and hot food projects, the work they do is so important, but this is the UK and this is a disgrace. We should not need them.
“We may disagree on the root causes of food poverty, but we can all agree that we want to eradicate food poverty through developing a suitable food strategy.
“I urge all councillors to vote in favour of the cabinet’s amended motion so that Devon County Council will have a cabinet member with responsibility for food resilience.
“This will make sure the aspirations of this motion will be carried through to enable all residents to afford enough nutritious food with as much food as possible produced locally.”
DCC leader Cllr John Hart said he would be nominate Cllr Croad as the cabinet member to take on responsibility for food insecurity, adding: “We will all be involved in this and it is an issue for all of us.”