When schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic in March, the government wanted to ensure the 1.3 million children who receive free school meals in England didn’t go hungry during lockdown.


The Department for Education asked Edenred to design and deliver a scheme which would provide every eligible child with weekly vouchers that could be put towards the cost of feeding children at home.


By the time the scheme closed at the end of the school holidays, the scheme had surpassed all expectations, It had delivered the equivalent of more than 128m school meals, attracted the high profile support from Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford who campaigned successfully for its extension over the summer holidays and became one of the success stories in the government’s response to the pandemic.


A unique scheme


“As a leading provider of cashless payments and with relationships in place with the UK’s leading food retailers from our existing merchant network, we had the infrastructure needed to put free school meal vouchers into the hands of parents and carers which they could then redeem in supermarkets,” says Colin Hodgson, Sales Director and programme director for the national free school meal voucher replacement scheme at Edenred.


“Even with the benefit of having all that in place, it was an incredibly challenging project because of the scope, the sheer scale, the complexity and of course, the sensitivity of what we had to design, build, launch and deliver.


We had to create a new system which would allow schools to place orders for every child eligible for free school meals, so a voucher could be delivered to their parents or carers on a weekly basis.


That system had to be robust enough to work at scale for the 22,500 schools and 1.3m eligible children in England and deal with the unique and complex interface between the Department for Education, school administrators, families and retailers.”


The scheme also needed to ensure those with low levels of literacy, for whom English is not their first language, or those with limited access to technology or the internet were catered for.


Beyond that, Edenred needed to provide access to the widest possible network of grocery retailers in the UK, ensuring that all public funds allocated to free school meals were delivered to the families and carers who needed them.


Ready for launch


Within ten days of the initial approach by the DfE, Edenred built a dedicated platform which allowed schools to register for the scheme, securely upload email addresses of parents or carers eligible for free school meals and issue unique eCodes which could then be redeemed for vouchers.


“The use of vouchers fulfilled through our Compliments Select platform, meant schools could choose whether families received their free school meal allowance via email or, for those who were unable to redeem and receive them electronically, the school administrators could select and print the voucher on behalf of parents,” says Colin Hodgson.


“During the scheme, we then expanded the retailer network from the initial six supermarkets, launching Aldi, McColl’s, Company Shop Group and Iceland. This gave parents even greater choice as to where to spend their vouchers.


When you consider the fact that our colleagues were working remotely, many for the first time having never worked from home before, whilst also delivering this project, it was a remarkable achievement.”


eGift cards deliver


The scheme launched at the beginning of April and over 11,000 schools activated accounts in the first couple of days, quickly increasing to over 17,500 schools using the scheme, eventually reaching more than 20,000, equivalent to 92% of the schools in England.


“The demand was exceptional from the moment the scheme went live. Within a few days we were distributing millions of pounds in eGift cards to parents through the platform,” says Colin Hodgson.


“The really key phase came after that launch where we worked around the clock to put in a range of improvements which accelerated ordering times, addressed bottle necks resulting from surges in demand at peak times and improved the experience for school administrators and parents.


By mid-June, when Manchester United and England footballer, Marcus Rashford campaigned for the scheme to be extended to cover the school holidays, Edenred had provided £164m in free school meal vouchers – equivalent to just under 11m individual weekly meal allowances – to parents and carers.


This investment through the course of the scheme meant that when the Government announced extra funding for free school meals through the Covid Summer Food Fund, the system was able to cope with the surge of demand as school registrations and the volume of orders increased to cover the school holiday.


By the end of the summer holidays at the beginning of September, Edenred had provided more than £384m in school meal vouchers – the equivalent of more than 128m individual meals – to children who needed them.


“There’s no doubt that this was a tough scheme to deliver – particularly in the early days when the team was working around the clock to ensure schools and parents got the support they need,” says Colin Hodgson.


“What makes it worthwhile is knowing that we got through vital support to those who needed it through the months of lockdown and the positive messages we have received from schools and families who have told us about the difference we have made.


I’m incredibly proud of what the Edenred team achieved in delivering the scheme through lockdown with the Department for Education.”



The scheme at a glance


3 The number of times the scheme was extended


1.3m children eligible for free school meals in England


10 days – the time Edenred had to build and launch the free school meal voucher scheme.


21,659 schools in England activated their accounts (98%)


82% the amount of the UK grocery market covered by the ten retailers who joined the scheme.


1 million eCodes per week redeemed by families and schools at the peak of the scheme


£50 million in gift cards were distributed to families per week at the peak of the scheme


£164m the value of vouchers distributed by the time Marcus Rashford campaigned for the summer extension to the scheme


128 million of meals distributed through the course of the scheme


The equivalent of 20 meals being purchased every 20 seconds, seven days a week throughout the scheme


94% of parents said they were satisfied with the scheme


93% of schools said vouchers were a good alternative for delivering food support to families