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The coronavirus pandemic has pushed many families from a difficult financial situation into an impossible one. Since lockdown began in March, Caritas Westminster has been supporting schools across the Diocese of Westminster as they have rallied to ensure families do not go hungry.

A recent study by Child Poverty Action Group and the Church of England found that 80 percent of low-income families have seen a ‘significant deterioration’ in their living standards. The same survey found that nearly nine in ten families faced additional costs as a result of coronavirus, and were spending substantially more on food, electricity, and other essentials.

While many schools were already aware of families who were struggling financially, lockdown both highlighted and exacerbated the problem. The Government’s Free School Meals voucher scheme faced delays, and schools saw a rising desperation amongst families who had relied on Free School Meals to ensure their children had enough to eat. In response, many schools began buying their own vouchers or setting up emergency food relief schemes.

Danny Coyle, Headteacher of Newman Catholic College in West London, explained that when lockdown startedthe school’s initial focus was on ensuring students could continue learning from home. However, it wasn’t long before the focus moved to ensuring pupils had enough to eat. The school worked with local volunteers who used the school kitchen to cook emergency meals. Soon, the volunteers were delivering up to 200 meals a day, with funding and support from Caritas Westminster and the Cardinal’s Appeal.

Another school in West London set up a weekly food parcel scheme, made up entirely of donations from families at the school. Several parents came forward asking to receive parcels, but others who were in need did not feel comfortable asking for help. The Headteacher made sure these families did not miss out, delivering food parcels to their doorsteps herself.

Some schools are running foodbanks on their premises for the wider local community. David O’Farrell, Headteacher at St Bernadette’s school, Harrow, started a foodbank at the school 5 years ago, but since the pandemic he has seen a big increase in the number of people using it. St Elizabeth’s school in East London has also opened its own foodbank to meet local need. Tracy Jennings, Deputy Head, told us that schools are perfect locations for foodbanks as they often know who is in need and are well placed to support their communities.

Schools exist to educate children. However, all the schools that Caritas Westminster has been working with felt passionately that it was also their job as Catholic schools to serve their communities. One headteacher said it was important that the Catholic school she leads showed its children a real example of the Church’s social teaching in action.

As children return to school, many parents will be relieved to see their children receiving free hot meals again. However, this will not be the case for families with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). During the pandemic the Government extended Free School Meals vouchers to families whose immigration status means they are not entitled to essential welfare support, but this provision is ending as term starts. Schools told Caritas Westminster that these families are often the most in need, but they go under the radar unless they disclose their immigration status. Caritas Westminster has joined with 60 other organisations in writing to the Education Secretary to call for Free School Meals to be permanently extended to families with NRPF.

Caritas Westminster will continue to support the vital work of Catholic schools and parishes across the diocese as they respond to the ongoing effects of the pandemic. So far, 119 parishes and schools have benefitted from the Caritas Emergency Food Voucher Scheme, with over 40 schools participating in the scheme over the summer holidays. This work has been funded by the Albert Gubay Foundation and the St John Southworth Fund.

You can support the work of Caritas Westminster by donating here.