Delivering Free School Meals in Lockdown

By Andy Philpott - Marketing & Sales Director, Edenred

When schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic in March, one of the most pressing questions facing the Department for Education was what it could do to ensure the 1.3 million children who receive free school meals in England didn’t go hungry during lockdown.

The solution, in the form of the Free School Meal Vouchers Scheme, ultimately became one of the most high-profile areas of the government’s response to the Covid-19 shutdown.

A unique challenge

When the DfE approached Edenred to ask if we could deliver the scheme in the days following lockdown, it was clear that given the urgency, sensitivity and scale it would be a uniquely demanding project.

From the initial brief in late March, we would have a couple of weeks before start of the summer term to create a platform which could manage the interface between the DfE, up to 22,500 schools, hundreds of thousands of families and the retailers. 

We would have to put in place the widest possible network of grocery retailers set up with eGift Cards and ensure that it was easy to use.

We also had to ensure that every pound of public funds allocated to free school meals vouchers went to the parents and carers who needed them.

A bespoke platform

While we were clear-eyed about the challenge this would present to the business – particularly as it would have to be delivered by teams working remotely during lockdown – we were also confident we could create the right platform to do the job required by the DfE.

With a background delivering childcare vouchers, we were used to working with parents and schools.

Our focus on digital innovation meant that we had invested heavily in the Select platform which could issue eGift cards at scale and deal with surges in demand. 

We’d also recently updated and tested the business continuity capability which would allow us to develop and deliver the scheme remotely.

Less than three weeks after our initial conversation with the DfE, we created the bespoke platform which would deliver the Free School Meal Vouchers and a network of retailers where they could be redeemed representing the majority of the UK supermarkets.

Delivering for families and carers

Looking back, six months on from that initial phone call from the DfE, we’re incredibly proud of the support we provided through lockdown.

Over the course of the scheme, we delivered £385m in Free School Meal Vouchers to families who needed them, the equivalent of 128m meals.

As demand peaked following Marcus Rashford’s successful campaign for the vouchers to cover the summer, the new platform distributed £50m in eGift cards in one week and 1.1m eCodes, with 92% of schools using the scheme.

By the time the scheme closed, independent research conducted among 3,704 schools and 187,000 parents found overwhelming support for its positive impact with 94% of parents saying they were satisfied with the scheme and 93% of schools saying vouchers were a good alternative for delivering food support for families. 

Partnership matters

There are many things to learn from delivering a scheme of this scale, one of which is the power of purpose.

This was, without doubt, the most challenging programme any of us have worked on at Edenred. What made a difference to its ultimate success and navigating some of the tough early challenges, was the commitment of every individual working on the project to do whatever they could to deliver a scheme that worked for parents and families who relied on it.

The second learning is the value of partnerships within our industry. From Tillo to the supermarkets – those who signed up to make the scheme work at launch and the ones who worked so hard to came on board after, it would not have happened without you.

A final takeaway from the scheme is the potential for eGift cards and vouchers to play a role in supporting public social programmes with a secure alternative to cash. 

It was a great demonstration of the value digital gift cards and our industry. We are proud and pleased to have played our part alongside all of the GVCA members and industry partners who came forward to work with schools and ensure that children in England got the support they needed in lockdown.

Photo credit: VisionPic .net from Pexels

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