Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford has spearheaded an unprecedented campaign around the issue of child food poverty and unearthed huge public support for extending free school meals for children.
It began with a push to extend the government Free School Meal (FSM) scheme over the Autumn half term, to help families facing further loss of incomes due to coronavirus and ensure that children do not suffer as a result.
The government voted against extending the scheme, despite almost a million people signing Rashford’s petition, as Conservative ministers said funding released to local councils and extensions to Universal Credit is the best way to help alleviate child poverty.
That vote has prompted a huge backlash with the petition going viral and other celebrities helping to amplify the hashtag #endchildfoodpoverty, including the bands Coldplay and Bastille, members of One Direction and other sports stars.
“Those who have rallied around our communities, please continue to do so, you are the real pride of Britain,” Rashford said in a statement on Twitter.
“#endchildfoodpoverty is not about children going hungry during the school holidays, this is about children going hungry full stop. Let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture here. There are at least 1.5million children we are not reaching with the free school meal scheme.”
In response, thousands of community organisations, schools and councils across the country pledged to provide free school meals to children in need throughout half term, in place of government support, with around 10,000 meals delivered on the first day of half term, according to the Huffington Post.
The campaign has also led to a surge in demand for half term food support: in Devon, one organisation Food in the Community is set to deliver over 80 food boxes during the holiday, using donated surplus veg from nearby organic veg box company Riverford.
Alongside the public support, a lobby led by the Child Food Poverty Taskforce is hoping to persuade MPs to change their vote, if Labour succeeds in tabling a second vote ahead of further school holidays.
In April 2020, 88,000 children were in homes were jobs had been lost, with 1.2 million in homes affected by furlough, the taskforce said, while 1.4 million children (18 per cent of 8-17 year olds) have reported experiences of food insecurity over the summer holidays.
Rashford himself, while continuing to train with and play for Manchester United, has transformed his Twitter profile into a virtual map of the UK by sharing place names and retweeting pledges of free school meal support from towns across the country. This has also been turned into a virtual map at kidsmealmap.co.uk.
While the issue has gained public interest in part due to Rashford’s profile (he was awarded an MBE for campaigning for school meals over the summer holidays), the campaign for School Food Matters and think tank The Food Foundation have been working behind the scenes to lobby government and coordinate community responses.
“There is amazing momentum behind the free school meals campaign. It’s really fantastic what Marcus Rashford has done, but there is also a multitude of organisations behind his work who are working tirelessly to put this issue top of the government’s agenda. They are the unsung heroes of this campaign,” said Jonathan Pauling, chief executive of the Alexandra Rose charity, which provides vouchers for low income families to swap for fruit and veg.
“Although it’s great to see businesses and communities stepping forward this week to help feed families, the easiest, most impactful and cost effective way to support these families is for the government to extend the free school meal vouchers that they ran over the summer.
“It’s an issue that certainly seems to have galvanised huge public support and although it might be too late for this half term, hopefully the pressure will be too great to ignore come the Christmas break.”