Manchester United footballer star Marcus Rashford has helped force a government U-turn and ensure that children entitled to free school meals will continue to receive them over the summer holidays.
Rashford, who himself suffered from food poverty during his childhood, published an open letter calling on MPs to push for a U-turn on Monday morning (15 June).
His letter quickly gained online attention and had been shared almost 150 thousand times at the time of writing, and gained a response from Downing Street by Tuesday morning. Leaving social media to attend training, he returned to the news that there will be a new £120 million ‘Covid summer food fund’ to keep free school meals going over the summer.
After growing pressure and national media appearances by Rashford, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister said: “Owing to the corona pandemic, the PM fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer.”
When asked if the campaign by Rashford had influenced the decision, the spokesperson said the PM “welcomes Marcus Rashford’s contribution to the debate around poverty”.
In a tweet, Rashford said: “I don’t even know what to say. Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”
The government had initially said it would not extend the free school meals scheme over summer, which it had done over the Easter holidays, despite criticism from unions and campaigners, who have highlighted the devastating effect on vulnerable children whose parents have faced loss of income due to coronavirus.
Sustainable food alliance Sustain and The Good Law Project had prepared a court case against the government before the U-turn, stating that proposals to ensure children do not go hungry are “inadequate”. Before caving to pressure, the government had said that a new local authority welfare assistance scheme should be used to help those who are struggling to afford food and other essentials.
A statement from Sustain said that while Rashford “scored the final winning goal”, the U-turn on free school meals follows months of campaigning, lobbying and the threat of legal action.
Coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, Barbara Crowther, said: “This is not just a win for Marcus, it’s a victory for every parent struggling to find the money for the next meal, every child who might otherwise have had to skip meals, and every local school worrying about the health of their pupils if they had to go six weeks without support.
“We will be scrutinising the detail of this new fund and holding government accountable for making sure all £120 million ends up where it needs to – on children’s plates.”
In his emotional letter shared under the hashtag #maketheuturn, Rashford wrote that: “My story to get here is all-too-familiar for families in England: my mum worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table.
“But it was not enough. The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked.”
Food banks and food poverty campaigners have been vocal about the impact of coronavirus on the least well off. Over three million people applied for Universal Credit between March and June 2020, while phone waits to access it reached up to seven hours.