DIRECT payments for free school meals (FSM) will continue across the summer holidays but Fife Council are concerned that families will become “reliant” on the money.

Councillors agreed that parents and guardians of children who are entitled to a school dinner will receive £11.50 per week, per child, until the new term begins in August.

The total cost will be more than £2.5 million and they’ll also continue direct food provision to voluntary and community organisations over the holidays.

However, Michael Enston, executive director for communities, said: “While the direct payments are effective in ensuring that people have the funds to pay for food, there are concerns about the long-term financial sustainability of the payments.

“There are also concerns that the longer the council continues to provide direct payments, the more likely it is that people will become reliant on them. Similarly, the current model of community food resilience is not sustainable in the long term and may be creating a dependency culture, with some food-providers using the emergency supply as one of their regular weekly suppliers rather than as an emergency top-up.”

And his report to the policy and co-ordination committee said the financial impact on the council, already reeling from an estimated £78m (see story on facing page) in additional costs due to the virus, could increase.

Mr Enston said: “The Scottish Government’s economic forecast suggests that it may take some time for the economy to return to pre-pandemic levels.

“There is potential for a spike in unemployment if businesses cannot sustain pre-pandemic staffing levels due to reduced customer demand or financial stresses.

“It is also unclear whether there will be a further impact later in the year should there be a second wave of the pandemic.”

Despite the warnings, the mood was generally positive as councillors agreed a plan to tackle holiday hunger with direct payments continuing over the summer.

A decision is still to be made about the arrangements when schools go back in August.

Council co-leader, Councillor David Ross, said: “We know a whole lot of kids and families struggle over the summer in normal circumstances and it’s twice as bad now because of the lockdown.

“All of the statistics about the virus show it’s having more of an impact in deprived communities so this is something we absolutely have to do.

“I’m very pleased we’re getting Scottish Government funding to support the FSM element but we were going to do it anyway as it’s the right thing to do.”

Around 11,300 children are registered and the cost to the council is £130,000 a week.

The total, from lockdown on March 25 to August 5, will be more than £2.5m.

That had left a shortfall of £1.3m in the council budget for FSM but, last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a further £12.6m to enable local authorities to continue payments over the summer.

Asked about the effectiveness of the scheme, Mr Enston told councillors that there was no way of checking that the money was going to feed children but said that research by the Child Poverty Action Group had recommended direct payments.

He said that this method was “discrete” and meant that families did not feel stigmatised for receiving this support as the payment was private.

Councillors heard that it was not practical, due to physical distancing measures, for Cafe Inc to run this summer. Last year, it provided more than 130,000 meals to children and families in Fife, and there were plans to spend another £400,000 to keep it going this year.