Not content with forcing the UK government to dramatically u-turn over a free school meal voucher scheme, footballer Marcus Rashford has decided to keep fighting food poverty.
The 22-year-old Manchester United footballer has set up a “child food poverty task force” representing the UK’s biggest food brands, with the aim that they will work together to back solutions to food poverty, he revealed in a letter sent to MPs on Tuesday.
It builds on his successful intervention in June, following a government announcement that a voucher scheme given to families to supplement free school meals during the COVID-19 lockdown was going to come to an end.
With families struggling in the pandemic facing a summer without this lifeline, Rashford whipped up public concern and wrote a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson that drew on his own experiences of food poverty growing up, leading to the decision being reversed.
However, Rashford told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday that the decision by the government to extend free school meals over the summer holidays was only a “short-term solution” and that longer term efforts were needed.
He has now signed up businesses including Asda, Co-op, Deliveroo, Iceland, Kellogg’s, Lidl, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Waitrose, and the nonprofits FareShare and the Food Foundation, to join the new task force to help support those solutions.
The group has said it backs the three main recommendations of the National Food Strategy, a government-commissioned report published on July 29.
One of those recommendations is for an additional 1.5 million children to be included in the free school meals scheme — meaning they would get at least one nutritionally healthy meal a day. All households on universal credit benefits should get access, the recommendation says, not just the very poorest as is the case now.
Another proposal supported by Rashford's task force was for an extension to the government’s “healthy start” voucher scheme which provides vouchers for fresh fruit, milk, and vegetables. It suggested the provisions should be increased to £4.25 a week, extended to all pregnant women, and offered to all households with a child under the age of four where a parent is claiming benefits.
Finally, the task force supports calls for an additional 1.1 million children (all those from families on universal credit rather than just some) to have access to free holiday provision, meaning access to food and activities during the school holidays.
The task force says implementing the three recommendations would mark a "unifying step to identifying a long-term solution to child poverty in the UK".
It is hoped that the broad support for the recommendations from the food industry will put further pressure on the government to take them up.
“When we pause, listen, and reflect on what the future of our next generation could potentially look like, it’s easy to see that if we don’t take action quickly, the issue of child food poverty will have devastating effects on the stability of our country,” Rashford wrote in his letter to the government.
He added: “These children are the future – our next generation of NHS workers, police officers, footballers, and politicians.”