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He was a soccer star. Then he took on the U.K. government and became a hero.

NBC News logo NBC News 10/27/2020 Yuliya Talmazan
Marcus Rashford wearing a red shirt talking on a cell phone © Provided by NBC News

LONDON — He's a multimillionaire soccer star for Manchester United and England, with the world at his feet.

But Marcus Rashford has made headlines on both the front and back pages in recent days after cafes, restaurants, farms and other businesses backed his viral campaign to offer free meals to school kids over the upcoming school break.

After lawmakers, the majority of them from Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government, rejected a bid from the opposition Labour Party last week to extend free meals over the school holidays until Easter, Rashford began retweeting offers from businesses to step in and help.

His feed was soon inundated with responses from companies across the country, many of which had been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

"It could be a situation of life and death," Phil Starling, co-owner of The Watering Can restaurant in Liverpool, told NBC News Sunday by phone, adding that the restaurant would supply free packed lunches for schoolchildren every day this week.

Starling, 38, said the response to Rashford's campaign has been overwhelming, but he said the businesses shouldn't be having to step up when they have been left cash-strapped by the pandemic.

Rashford, 22, who grew up in a cash-strapped household, has been highlighting the plight of the 1.3 million kids who rely on free school meals in the U.K. this year.

In July, he forced the government to reverse cutting free meals during school summer holidays after he shared that his family struggled when he was growing up and often relied on food banks.

a person sitting on display in a store: Image: The Farm Fresh Market in Watnall, England (Andrew Boyers / Reuters) © Andrew Boyers Image: The Farm Fresh Market in Watnall, England (Andrew Boyers / Reuters)

Rashford won praise from politicians of all stripes for his campaign, and was honored as a member of the prestigious Order of the British Empire for his advocacy.

The striker expressed his disappointment after last week's vote, which has led to heavy criticism of the government. Over the weekend, several ministers have appeared in the media to repeat the line that the government has already introduced more effective measures to support families.

Civil society minister Baroness Diana Barran told BBC Radio on Saturday that over 200 billion pounds was made available by the government to protect people's incomes and livelihoods, and providing more money to local authorities is a better way of approaching this problem.


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

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But Rashford's campaign has gained considerable traction online, with a petition that he launched calling for an end to child food poverty having gotten more than 900,000 signatures by Tuesday.

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Deprivation and hunger are big issues in the U.K., where more than four million children, or around 30 percent, live in poverty, according to the Child Poverty Action Group.

And it is getting worse, with the Food Foundation charity estimating that this month a further 900,000 children signed up to receive free school meals for the first time this fall.

Starling said it's a situation all too familiar to Rashford.

"He comes from a working-class background. He knows poverty," he said.

It's a sentiment shared by Reena Chotai, owner of Red Cup Cafe in northwest London, and her husband, Hanel, who is a huge fan of Rashford's team, Manchester United.

"Marcus has made this issue so visible, and it just gave us that urge to just do something and help," Chotai, 44, said Sunday in a telephone interview. "He has actually grown up in a very similar background to those whom he is trying to help."

Marcus Rashford with a football ball: Image: Marcus Rashford (Oli Scarff / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) © Oli Scarff Image: Marcus Rashford (Oli Scarff / Pool via AFP - Getty Images)

Chotai said Rashford's campaign has "tugged on [their] heartstrings," so they will be donating free meals all week, despite having taken a hard hit from the pandemic, like many other businesses in the hospitality industry.

Already, Chotai said, they have received several emails from people who have said they felt embarrassed asking for food for their children.

"The British public is very stoic," she said. "They won't ask for help easily. And this is our way of saying: 'Here is the help. Please just come and take it.'"

Rashford said he has been "blown away" by offers of support, praising "superstars" in local communities for stepping up and tweeting a map of people who have offered help on Sunday.

Prime Minister Borish Johnson has praised the efforts of the striker, who is widely popular, but has not backed down on its decision.

Several politicians have also challenged Rashford on social media, saying the government isn't turning a blind eye to the problem and more long-term solutions are necessary to ensure children don't go hungry in the U.K.

Rashford meanwhile, has insisted that his campaign isn't just about children going hungry during the school holidays — it's only a step toward eradicating child food poverty completely.

On Sunday, opposition leader Keir Starmer said in a tweet his party will force another vote on free school meals if the government does not change its course before the Christmas break.

"It's not too late to do the right thing," he added.

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