OVER a million children suffering in dire poverty in the UK will now get free school meal vouchers during the holidays, after a successful campaign by football star Marcus Rashford forced the Tory government into a U-turn on the issue.
‘Just look at what we can do when we come together. This is England 2020,’ Rashford declared after news of his victory broke yesterday afternoon.
Almost 1.3 million school children in England – accounting for 15.4% of state-educated pupils – were eligible for and claiming free school meals according to the latest available data.
Official figures for 2019 showed the need was greatest in parts of London, the north and Midlands where between a quarter and a third of all pupils were getting the free meals.
Until yesterday, Johnson’s Tories were determined to leave over a million children to suffer from holiday hunger. They were prepared to leave children and their families faced with surviving off food banks and donations to avoid starvation.
However, after Rashford’s campaign, the government caved in and reversed their decision.
The Manchester United and England forward has already raised about £20m to support three million meals to vulnerable people working with the charity FareShare UK during the coronavirus lockdown.
On Monday, in an emotional letter to MPs drawing on his own experiences of growing up relying on free school meals and food banks, Rashford said his story is ‘all too familiar for families in England’.
In the letter, Rashford wrote: ‘My mum worked full-time, earning the minimum wage, to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table, but it was not enough.’
In Parliament yesterday, Labour’s leader Keir Starmer told Johnson: ‘In the last hour, the government has U-turned on free school meals. Can I put on record my thanks to Marcus Rashford for the part that he has played on this issue and the victory for the 1.3 million people affected.’
Tory PM Johnson dodged the issue and was not pressed on it again during the parliamentary session.
Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: ‘The NEU welcomes the news that the government will provide a £120 million “Covid summer food fund” to support children and families who are facing real crisis as the summer holiday approaches. In the fifth richest country in the world, it is not right that so many children face food insecurity, especially in a time of global health crisis.
‘After a great deal of public pressure the government has finally recognised the importance of ensuring that children do not go hungry during this time of unprecedented pandemic. The NEU congratulates Marcus Rashford for the stand he has taken.
‘There should never have been any hesitation on the part of government. For too many children and young people hunger is an all too familiar part of their daily life. It is now time for government to act upon the need to end child poverty, not just for the period of a pandemic but for all time.
‘The hardship and struggle our current benefit system creates will not end with the containment of this virus. Covid-19 is a natural phenomenon – poverty is not.
‘We must work together as a society to build back better after this crisis, ensuring that families facing food insecurity and poverty are offered the support they need to get back on their feet.
‘Provision of free school meals over the summer was the second of the NEU’s 10-point plan for education. We look forward to working with others, including government, to achieve the other nine points.’