At January 2020, 1.44 million children in England were eligible for free school meals, representing 17.3% of all pupils. The Department funds free school meals with the aim of ensuring that disadvantaged pupils have a healthy lunch that will support their learning and development. State schools are legally responsible for providing free school meals to eligible pupils. Pupils may be eligible if their parent or carer is in receipt of specified income-related benefits, including Universal Credit.
On 18 March 2020, the Government announced that, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools in England would close on 20 March 2020 for all pupils except vulnerable children and children of key workers. On 31 March 2020, the Department announced a national free school meals voucher scheme, as a temporary substitute for the normal arrangements. The vouchers were worth £15 per week, for each eligible child.
The Department awarded a contract to run the voucher scheme to a private contractor, Edenred without tender under the emergency procurement rules. Schools participating in the scheme ordered electronic codes (eCodes) online that could be converted into shopping vouchers for families to use at nominated supermarkets. The number of supermarket chains taking part in the scheme rose from six at the start to 10 by 29 June 2020. The scheme ran until the end of the school summer holiday and over 90% of state schools registered to use the scheme. The Department spent £384 million on the scheme.