The provision of free school meals (FSM) to children from out-of-work families or those on low incomes is of the utmost importance to this government. The most recent statistical publication shows that there are around 1.4 million children eligible for and claiming a nutritious FSM, based on the January school census, saving families more than £400 per year. The 2020 publication is available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/schools-pupils-and-their-characteristics-january-2020. Take-up may currently be higher due to the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak and current economic circumstances.
We are grateful for the hard work that school staff undertake throughout the school year to deliver this provision locally for the families that are eligible for FSM. During the COVID-19 outbreak, we are especially appreciative of the actions that schools have taken to continue FSM provisions during such challenging circumstances. We want to make sure that as many eligible pupils as possible are claiming their FSM, and schools continue to accept applications from pupils who are newly eligible. To support this, the department provides an Eligibility Checking System to make the checking process as quick and straightforward as possible for schools and local authorities.
We have put additional guidance in place to ensure we support pupils eligible for FSM who are having to self-isolate during term-time, asking schools to work with their caterers to provide food parcels. Given the increased uncertainty of the COVID-19 outbreak we are taking steps to make sure that children and families get the extra support they need over the winter. Building on the significant financial support given throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, a new £170 million Covid Winter Grant Scheme will be run by councils in England. The funding will be ring-fenced, with at least 80% earmarked to support with food and bills, and will cover the period to the end of March.
We are also investing up to £220 million in the Holiday Activities and Food programme which will be expanded across England next year. Children eligible for FSM will have the option to join a holiday-time programme that provides healthy food and enriching activities during the summer, Christmas and Easter holidays, giving disadvantaged young people opportunities they might otherwise lose out on.
Additionally, we are increasing the value of Healthy Start Vouchers from £3.10 to £4.25 from next April. This scheme supports pregnant women or those with children under four who have a low income and are in receipt of benefits to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. This will help those on lower incomes to boost the long-term health of their children.
Finally, we have also pledged additional funding of £16 million for food distribution charities, conversations are ongoing as to how this is allocated. This is further to the £16 million distributed to food aid charities earlier in the COVID-19 outbreak.