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NewsFood & Hunger

Marcus Rashford Forces Second Sensational UK U-Turn Over Free School Meals at Christmas

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The UN’s Global Goal 2 aims to end hunger and malnutrition globally by 2030. But the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked hunger crises all over the world, including in Britain. It’s critical that we tackle food poverty, especially for children, otherwise it could have devastating impacts in other areas of life too, including health, education, and more. Take action to protect the most vulnerable communities from COVID-19 and its impacts here.

Back in June, Marcus Rashford was celebrating: football was finally back after a prolonged pandemic-shaped absence, Manchester United were on a 5-game winning streak, and he had successfully urged UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to offer free school meals to children across the country over the summer holidays.

Four months on, and autumn’s cold snap has brought a renewed COVID-19 spike in Britain. Death rates are consistently in triple figures, England is back in another national lockdown, and 900,000 more children have signed up for free school meals.

But despite everything, Rashford has more cause for cheer — he has once again forced a change of heart from Johnson after another wildly successfuly campaign to ensure all those kids have enough food to eat over Christmas.

The 23-year-old shared a petition on Oct. 15 that urged the government to implement three key recommendations from the National Food Strategy, the first major review into UK food systems since World War Two, published in July. It earned 200,000 signatures within a day.

And as pressure mounted around the country, Johnson called Rashford on Saturday to tell him the government would spend more than £400 million to support poor children and their families in England from the start of December to the end of March.

The footballer said the package would help 1.7 million children. 

Included in the package is £170 million for councils, 80% of which must be used for food and bills. Then £220 million has been earmarked to expand the holiday food and activities programme, which coveres all holidays going into 2021 too, including Easter, summer, and Christmas.

In addition, there will be £16 million more for food banks, and Johnson agreed to hold further discussions with the footballer's food poverty taskforce.

"Following the game today, I had a good conversation with the prime minister to better understand the proposed plan, and I very much welcome the steps that have been taken to combat child food poverty in the UK," Rashford said.

"The intent the government have shown today is nothing but positive and they should be recognised for that," he added. 

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However, Rashford did raise his concern about families who might miss out on support because their income was not quite low enough to meet the threshold for help. Not all of the campaign's initial demmands have been met.

First, the campaign asked for access to free school meals to be urgently expanded to those under the age of 16 who have parents that are on universal credit, the UK’s all-in-one welfare system. This was the one question that, according to the Guardian, remains unanswered.

Then during the October half term and Christmas break, it asked for meals and activities to be provided to tackle holiday hunger. Finally, it demanded support to be increased for the “Healthy Start” scheme — a government programme that provides vouchers for fresh fruit, milk, and vegetables, backed by the food poverty task force that Rashford set up in September. They’re available if you’re pregnant, or have a child under the age of four — and Rashford wanted it increased from £3.10 a week to at least £4.25.

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“For too long this conversation has been delayed,” Rashford said as he launched the petition. “Child food poverty in the UK is not a result of COVID-19. We must act with urgency to stabilise the households of our vulnerable children.”

“Right now, a generation who have already been penalised during this pandemic with lack of access to educational resources are now back in school struggling to concentrate due to worry and the sound of their rumbling stomachs,” he continued. “Whatever your feeling, opinion, or judgment, food poverty is never the child’s fault.”

Rashford added: “Let’s protect our young. Let’s wrap arms around each other and stand together to say that this is unacceptable, that we are united in protecting our children.”

Over the summer holidays, 1.4 million students faced hunger, according to new data from the Food Foundation — that’s a fifth of all 8 to 17-year-olds in the UK.

“It’s not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays," a spokesperson from 10 Downing Street reportedly said. But Rashford responded with typical determination: “This is not going away anytime soon and neither am I,” he tweeted.

Related Stories Oct. 12, 2020 A Surge in Children Signing Up for Free School Meals Raises Concerns About UK Food Poverty

Dominic Rabb, the UK’s foreign secretary, had previously stated that the government would “always listen to what Marcus has got to say”, but insisted that the “right package [was] in place already” — through universal credit and via emergency funding to local councils in affected communities.

However, the government had said this before — and in June, Rashford’s campaigning led to a spectacular U-turn, meaning that the free school meals scheme was temporarily expanded so children could continue to eat during the summer holidays.

Rashford’s work was recognised on Oct. 10 with an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours.