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Free school meals: a political football in England

AFP logoAFP 10/26/2020 AFP
a man standing in front of a sign: Volunteers from Richmond Rugby load bags of meals into a car before delivering them to local children in Twickenham during school vacation when needy youngsters are not geeting free meals at school © Hollie Adams Volunteers from Richmond Rugby load bags of meals into a car before delivering them to local children in Twickenham during school vacation when needy youngsters are not geeting free meals at school

A campaign by Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford to feed England's poorest children during school holidays has turned into a political football, throwing the spotlight on increased poverty during the coronavirus outbreak.

Some 1.3 million children in England benefit from free meals at school © Hollie Adams Some 1.3 million children in England benefit from free meals at school

"This is not politics, this is humanity," tweeted the 22-year-old after Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government voted against a proposal to give free meals to vulnerable youngsters over school holidays this week.

a man wearing a blue hat: Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government has rejected extending free meals to needy youngsters in England during school holidays © Jeremy Selwyn Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government has rejected extending free meals to needy youngsters in England during school holidays

The multi-millionaire footballer previously forced a government U-turn on providing free school meal vouchers during the summer holidays.

The economic fallout from the virus outbreak is pushing more families into poverty, leaving many unable to afford essentials such as food and heating. 

In recognition of his widely praised campaign, he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in Queen Elizabeth II's recent honours list.

But Johnson is not budging this time around, despite the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales continuing meal provisions to the most needy children during holidays.

Marcus Rashford wearing a football jersey: Marcus Rashford was was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in Queen Elizabeth II's recent honours list in recognition of his campaign to feed vulnerable children © Oli SCARFF Marcus Rashford was was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in Queen Elizabeth II's recent honours list in recognition of his campaign to feed vulnerable children

On Monday he again pointed out that increased welfare payments to families during the pandemic are helping to feed children when schools are not in session.

"I haven't spoken to Marcus since June. I think what he is doing is terrific," he said.

"We don't want to see children going hungry this winter, Christmas, certainly not as a result of inattention from the government."

- 1.3 million kids -

Some 1.3 million children in England benefit from free meals at school, according to the latest official data.


Video: Soccer star Rashford stands by his campaign for free meals for U.K.'s poorest kids (NBC News)

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Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said schools were doing what they could to feed children during the holidays.

But they were suffering from tight budgets.

"We represent 20,000 school and college leaders around the UK so we hear from them first hand about the impact that food poverty is having on their pupils and there are some really heart-wrenching stories to be honest about the poverty that lots of children are living in at the moment," she told AFP.

"It may be that the only really nutritious meal that they have during the day is the lunch that they eat at school."

Some MPs in Johnson's Conservative party have hit out over the government's stance, amid a wave of public anger directed at them.

One protest saw empty plates dumped outside a local Tory party headquarters with messages including "Tories for few, not the many" and "lunch is not a luxury".

But the UK government's refusal to back down has seen local councils -- including one in Johnson's own constituency -- as well as schools and businesses step in to provide food this week.

"As a local business, I think we have a responsibility for our community because it's our community that pays our wages," said one cafe owner in Sheerness, Kent, who is offering free breakfasts for children over the holiday.

"This is just helping out," he added.

English football clubs and their fans are meanwhile donating large sums of money to food banks, which have become a daily safety net for struggling families since the global financial crisis more than a decade ago.

Rashford meanwhile heads the Child Food Poverty Task Force comprising British food and beverage organisations including Deliveroo and supermarket Waitrose.

- Rising food poverty -

"Marcus Rashford has done a fantastic job in exposing the issues because he has suffered, he has experienced what it's like as a child to go hungry," said Andrew Tranter, 76, who runs a food bank in Watford, north of London.

The Trussell Trust, which supports more than 1,200 food banks across the UK including those in Watford, forecasts that 846,000 parcels will need to be provided by its network in the current final quarter -- up 61 percent on last year.

"We've seen a very marked increase in the number of people using our facilities, right from the beginning of the lockdown in March," said one volunteer, Tranter.

Financial donations are being used to pay fuel bills for families whose choice is "heat or eat".

"We've had people who were in very good jobs," he told AFP while standing next to shelves packed with tinned food, nappies and pasta. 

"And when they come to us you can sense the stress and the anxiety because they've always been able to provide for their families, they've never had to get the begging bowl out." 

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