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M&S topping up £15 school meal vouchers to £20 for low-income families in England – is it worth it?

M&S topping up £15 school meal vouchers to £20 for low-income families in England – is it worth it?

The Government is providing parents of some children in England who qualify for free school meals with £15 food vouchers, as it did earlier in the pandemic. The vouchers can be used at multiple supermarkets including Aldi, Asda and Tesco, however M&S is topping up the vouchers for its stores to £20, covering the cost of the extra £5 itself. Here, we crunch the numbers and Martin Lewis gives his views on whether the higher value M&S voucher is worth it given it's often a pricier store.

It's important to note that even if eligible, you won't necessarily be offered one of these vouchers, as schools can choose to give food parcels instead – but here we're focusing on the vouchers and we'll take you through how they work and where's best to spend them.

Who's eligible and how does it work?

Families with children in England who qualify for school meals (Gov.uk has eligibility criteria) are eligible for a £15 voucher per week, per child (£20 if a parent picks an M&S voucher), as long as your school has chosen to give these vouchers instead of food parcels. The vouchers can be sent to parents to cover the four weeks between Monday 18 January and Friday 12 February.

If your school has chosen to give these food vouchers, it will email you a 16-digit code, which you can then redeem online for an e-gift card of your choice. You can get £15 to spend at Aldi, Asda, Company Shop Group, Iceland, McColl's, Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Tesco or Waitrose, or £20 at M&S (it'll show as a £15 voucher, but M&S says the additional £5 will be automatically added within a few hours of receipt). Alternatively, your school can select a gift card, print it, and post it to you.

How long is a voucher valid for?

The voucher works in the same way as a gift card, so you don't need to spend it all in one go and they have long expiry dates, between 12 months and five years. See Edenred (the company that distributes the vouchers) for more details, including on what to do if your code doesn't arrive, as well as other frequently asked questions.

Is the extra £5 at M&S worth it?

We compared the cost of a Government recommended shopping basket for one week of child lunches across multiple supermarkets. We also compared the cost using MSE Jenny's shopping basket for her child that she'd typically buy at Tesco closer to the £15 mark.

In our number crunching, we've gone for the cheapest products within the Government list, but we also used MSE Jenny's basket because it included some branded items, making it more of a real world example. Of course, this is simply a snapshot of what a basket may look like, and your shop may look different. We've compared the big supermarkets, but we haven't included Waitrose in the table as this is about comparing to see whether it's worth trading up from the more budget-friendly supermarkets to get the extra £5 at M&S.

Government recommended basket (comparing the cheapest products)

Basket item M&S Aldi Asda Morrisons Sainsbury's Tesco
Cherry tomatoes, 250g £1 (355g) 67p (350g) 49p 75p 70p 48p
Whole cucumber 60p 43p 46p 50p 43p 43p
Tinned sweetcorn, 325g 60p (380g, carton) 37p (340g) 47p (326g) 40p (326g) 60p 35p
Tuna chunks, 145g £1.10 (160g) 59p 59p 63p £1 79p
Baking potatoes, two £1.65 (four-pack) 39p (four-pack) 49p (four-pack) 50p (four-pack) 45p (four-pack) 41p (four-pack)
Baked beans, one tin 35p 23p 29p 30p 22p 23p
Bananas, five-pack £1 (five-pack) 69p 98p (seven-pack) 79p 80p 64p (six-pack)
Greek natural yoghurt, 1kg £2 99p £1.42 £1.55 £1.50 £1.25
Hovis granary bread, 800g £1.25 £1.20 (Warburtons) £1.65 £1.45 £1.25 £1.45
Medium cheddar, 200g £2.25 (250g) £1.79 (400g) £2 £2.50 (400g) £1.50 (220g) £1.55 (220g)
Ham, 125g £2 £1.19 (120g) 86p £1 (170g) £1.75 £1.10
TOTAL £12.80 £8.66 £9.70 £10.37 £10.20 £8.68

Comparing cheapest own-branded items where possible, with the same or similar pack sizes.

MSE Jenny's typical basket comparison (including branded items)

MSE Jenny's basket item M&S Aldi Asda Morrisons Sainsbury's Tesco
Cherry tomatoes, 250g £1 (355g) 67p (350g) 49p 75p 70p 48p
Whole cucumber 60p 43p 46p 50p 43p 43p
Jaffa cakes, 141g 86p 27p (135g) 60p (10) 85p (24) 75p (12) 60p
Tinned sweetcorn, 325g 60p (380g, carton) 37p (340g) 47p (326g) 40p (326g) 60p 35p
Tuna chunks, 145g £1.10 (160g) 59p 59p 63p £1 79p
Sweet potato, 1kg £1.35 89p £1 £1.19 £1.50 (1.25kg) 89p
Blueberries, 125g £1.50 (225g) 89p 99p £1.69 (150g) £1.50 (150g) 89p
Small bananas, six-pack £1 (five-pack) 69p (five-pack) 98p (seven-pack) 79p 80p 64p
Greek natural yoghurt, 1kg £2 99p £1.42 £1.55 £1.50 £1.25
Oatcakes, 250g £1.25 (300g) 55p 59p 80p (291g) 90p (300g) 80p
Houmous, 200g £1.25 (230g) 69p 80p £1.25 £1.20 £1.10
Carrots, 1kg 70p 41p 44p 35p 40p 41p
Fresh red peppers, two £1.55 84p 90p 98p 90p 90p
Salt and vinegar crisps, six-pack £2 65p £1 £1 85p 77p
Apples, six-pack £1.60 (seven-pack) 65p (five-pack) 59p (five-pack) 80p (five-pack) £1.20 79p
Medium cheddar, 220g £2.25 (250g) £1.79 (400g) £2 (400g) £2.50 (400g) £1.50 (220g) £1.55
Ham, 125g £2 £1.19 (120g) 86p £1 (170g) £1.75 £1.10
Hovis granary bread, 800g £1.25 £1.20 (Warburtons) £1.65 £1.45 £1.25 £1.45
TOTAL £23.86 £13.76 £15.83 £18.48 £18.73 £15.19

Comparing cheapest own-branded items where possible, with the same or similar pack sizes.

Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, comments: "If you shop to absolutely minimise costs, and go for the lowest brand levels of all foods, then our number-crunch indicates you're better off sticking with Aldi for your £15 voucher, closely followed by Tesco, which price-matches Aldi on many items anyway. On that basis, even with the extra funds, M&S would likely be more expensive as it only has a very limited super-budget range.

"However, if you are buying branded goods for some items, then the price gap closes somewhat. The £5 additional spending value at M&S is equivalent to a 25% discount. That does a lot to reduce the extra cost from its premium pricing. And that, combined with careful picking of goods based on available promotions, means it is likely possible to bring the M&S cost down to be comparable with Aldi. Though as if you get food vouchers, you are on – by definition – a limited income, it is worth a second's thought that the £5 extra may make it tempting to do other food shopping there too, and without that effective 25% reduction, M&S is generally at a much higher price point."

How can I make my voucher go further at other supermarkets?

If you only have a certain supermarket near you, and no access to transport, then no matter the savings elsewhere, they most likely won't offset the cost of public transport or taxis to access another supermarket. But we have some tips to stretch your voucher further in any supermarket the offers are valid in, including buying yellow-stickered reduced food, using the cashback app Shopmium, or coupons from our Supermarket Coupons page.

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