The Government should make cash available for low-income families so children can still be fed if schools close during the coronavirus outbreak, charities have said.
Some 18 groups have written to Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick seeking clarification on measures to ensure children do not go hungry.
Around 1.5 million children eligible for free school meals could be affected but the charities said there are more families living with food insecurity.
Direct cash transfers are “by far the most effective tool in order to aid families to weather the storm” and preferable over vouchers for food aid or funding for lunch clubs, the charities said.
The latter could be difficult as venues may need to close in future to follow Government guidelines and families who are in quarantine would not be able to attend emergency feeding programmes.
Also, a significant proportion of volunteers in emergency food aid provision are over 60 and so more vulnerable to the virus, the groups said.
Signatories of the letter include Church Action on Poverty, the Independent Food Aid Network and academics from several universities.
Current Government advice is that schools in the UK should not close but the situation could change as the disease continues to spread.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said closures now could do “more harm than good” but said school trips abroad should be stopped.
Ireland said on the same day that schools and colleges there will close for a fortnight from Friday.
Reducing the number of large-scale gatherings has also been proposed as a potential social distancing measure.
On Thursday, the Government also said anybody living with somebody who has taken ill could be told to self-isolate for seven days.
Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of the food charity Sustain, one of the signatories, said: “About 1.5 million children across the UK are currently eligible for free school meals due to families living on a very low income.
“If schools shut to prevent the spread of coronavirus, their families will struggle to be able to afford to feed their children at home, and will not be able to stockpile food supplies if they are self-isolating.
“Food banks are already at more than full stretch so cannot be expected to meet increased need.
“The Government must immediately make it clear how they will help the poorest families by making sufficient emergency funds readily available for people to be able to buy food if the impacts of Coronavirus disrupt food supplies and increase prices.”
Sabine Goodwin, co-ordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network, said: “Food aid providers run precarious operations largely dependent on often retirement age volunteers and food donations.
“Their capacity could be severely impacted by the spread of coronavirus, with the likelihood of staff shortages, drops in donations and venue closures.
“Our members are already reporting fewer donations, not being able to purchase essential items because of panic-buying as well as rationing to prepare for what lies ahead.
“This crisis shines a spotlight on the fragility of the incredible organisations supporting those on low or no income and above all on the need for long-term systemic change.”