The government has extended its national food voucher scheme to colleges that are having “practical difficulties” delivering free meals to students during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But they will have had to exhaust their 2018/19 and 2019/20 free meals in FE and 16-19 discretionary bursary allocations to be eligible for support.

Colleges can submit a business case to the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) for access to the voucher scheme “if they are having practical difficulties in providing meals, providing payments or providing vouchers to students entitled to free meals,” the guidance reads.

Local processes should continue where these are working, and the value of any vouchers claimed will be charged to the provider’s FE meals or their 16 to 19 discretionary bursary allocations.

The free meal vouchers will have a value equivalent of £3 per student, per meal; but free meal funding for FE issued as cash will have a value of £2.41 per student, per meal, in line with current allocations methodology.

Apprenticeships minister Gillian Keegan said she was “pleased” to make the announcement: We recognise the huge impact the coronavirus is having on the FE sector and are working to make sure all students have the support they need during this unprecedented time.

I’m grateful to colleges and other providers for their efforts to make sure students who are eligible for free meals are supported whilst learning remotely.”

But before providers submit a business case, the ESFA have said they “should use underspends they have rolled forward from their 2018 to 2019 academic year free meals in FE and/or 16 to 19 discretionary bursary allocations” as well as their allocations for 2019 to 2020 academic year free meals in FE and their 16 to 19 discretionary bursary to support students.

“These applications should only be made with the knowledge that their existing funding has been exhausted,” the guidance reads.

The voucher scheme was originally unveiled in March and has the backing of seven major supermarkets, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Waitrose, M&S and Aldi, but up until now has been limited to schools.

FE Week reported at that time that, in the absence of a government scheme for their sector, FE and skills providers had already taken the matter of feeding students into their own hands.

For instance, Boston College and MidKent College both opted for direct payments to students or their parents or carers.

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