I’m a disabled single parent on universal credit. We get free school meal vouchers, which is great. What’s not so great is that the supermarket giants force us into stores to spend them because they won’t let us redeem them online. My medical condition required me to shield, but I’ve had to take a taxi to the nearest supermarket. It’s discriminatory that the most vulnerable families are forced into stores, whereas richer folk sit at home and await online deliveries.
You raise an important issue, of which, I admit, I was unaware. Reports last year exposed the difficulties faced by parents in getting the vouchers in the form of e-gift cards, but there’s been little noise about the surprising fact that of the 11 grocery chains participating in the scheme, only three allow them to be used online along with the weekly shop. They are Asda, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, but you say you can’t afford the higher prices of the last two, and you can’t secure a delivery slot with Asda. Tesco and Morrisons would suit you better, but don’t redeem the cards online.
Although most high-street chains manage the feat with ordinary gift cards, both stores told me they lack the technology. “We are very much aware of this issue, and are working hard on a solution, but the complexities mean it will be some time before that can be implemented,” Tesco says. It suggests, unhelpfully, that parents who struggle to reach a store, ask friends and family – or, failing that, the Red Cross – to do their shopping. Morrisons also said it was looking into the situation and suggested you look at its new doorstep delivery service, which provides essential items for elderly and vulnerable customers without internet access. This telephone option, oddly, does accept food vouchers, but won’t allow you to shop online.
Parents in rural locations face similar problems because vouchers can’t be redeemed in many local shops. The Child Poverty Action Group is campaigning for the benefit to be issued in cash. As Kate Anstey, head of its cost of the school day project, says: “Cash payments work best as they allow flexibility, safety and choice.”
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