The myth around misuse of school meal vouchers by parents “stops us helping people”, the Government’s food tsar has said. 

Henry Dimbleby told MPs that good policies were being ignored over fears of “a very small number of people using them inappropriately” - and urged ministers to consider the huge benefits to struggling families.

Mr Dimbleby, who heads up the National Food Strategy, also called on the Government to support Marcus Rashford’s plea for needy children to be guaranteed a meal a day.

In a hearing of the Commons Petitions Committee, Children's Commissioner Anne Longfield backed calls for direct payments to families instead of vouchers or food parcels.

Labour has been calling for parents to get £15 cash through the benefits system so they can get the full value and to choose the right supplies for their children.

Marcus Rashford called for needy children to be guaranteed a meal a day

Mr Dimbleby called on ministers to learn lessons from the pandemic by shifting their focus on how to help the vulnerable, rather than worrying about fraud.

The Leon co-founder told MPs: “So many good policies are ignored because of worries about a very small number of people using them inappropriately.

“In a very serious way, it stops us helping people.”

Mr Dimbleby, said the Treasury had calculated that there was scope for some fraud in schemes like furlough but decided "the benefit is so much greater than the harm that will be done by the fraud".

He added: "I think, particularly in these areas of poverty, there often is so much time spent thinking about how a small number of people may abuse the scheme, which actually doesn't matter.

"You know, the question is 'what is the net benefit?', I think for so many of these things the net benefit is huge and we should stop worrying about a small amount of fraud."

Government food tsar Henry Dimbleby said too much time was spent focusing on fraud when trying to help the vulnerable

On Rashford's call for a guaranteed meal a day for children, he said: “It [the Government] needs to say, ‘We are doing this, that’s not failure’, and actually put those in place, such that as wealth increases, the eligibility, the number of people on that go down but make sure that safety net is there and make sure it’s strong.”

Ms Longfield also slammed the “stigmatising” idea that school meal vouchers are being exchanged for non-food items.

She said: “If there is a way that someone, somewhere has done that - I'm sure you know it is possible I'm sure someone's done it. We can’t base a policy on alleviating poverty and food poverty on someone who is breaking some rule, somewhere, allegedly.

"It's one of those things, it gets in the air, is part of that stigmatising, it's part of that demeaning place that so many families feel themselves in."

Ms Longfield said there was a "longer term" case to made about giving payments directly to families to reduce the stigma of receiving vouchers or food parcels.

Ahead of the hearing, the Manchester United striker told the Committee that all needy children must receive a meal a day.   

An image of a paltry food parcel that sparked a national outcry

Mr Rashford, who forced a Government u-turn over free school meals in the holidays, said: “It will take a lot of stress off the parents. When you’re a child, you don’t think about it.

“I remember when I was younger I just used to play out all day, and then I’d go home and if there was food there I’d eat it.

“If there wasn’t, I’d go to sleep. You just get on with your day, but the long-term effect is they’re missing out on a lot of vital stuff.”

The debate was triggered after more than 1.1million people backed the footballer’s petition to end child hunger.

The Government has come under fire in recent weeks over paltry food parcels sent to families and the decision to ask schools to rely on a council grant scheme to feed children over half term.

It comes as more than 6,000 people in England responded to a call from campaigners 38Degrees last week on their reliance on free school meals. 

Worried parents described going without meals to ensure their children don’t go hungry and struggling to pay electricity and heating when their kids are home all day.