Prime Minister Boris Johnson officially made a public U-turn around food poverty on Tuesday after Marcus Rashford — footballer, activist, England international — called on UK MPs to reverse their decision to withdraw free school meals over the course of the summer holidays.
However, the announcement came as Johnson also announced that he would scrap the UK's Department for International Development (DfID) — the department dedicated to tackling the shocking global inequality that leaves 736 million people living on less than $1.90 per day, including through funding programmes that combat extreme hunger crises around the world.
The Manchester United forward has raised over £20 million since the COVID-19 lockdown began for food poverty charity FairShare UK. But on Monday, Rashford went one step further, publishing a heartfelt plea to elected officials to stop children across Britain from going hungry, and urging fans to call on their local representatives to do the same.
Although 1.3 million children in England receive free school meals during term time, a quarter of them have not been offered support since schools have closed during the COVID-19 lockdown. Rashford noted this in his letter, describing food poverty as a “pandemic that could span generations.”
I don’t even know what to say.— Marcus Rashford (@MarcusRashford) June 16, 2020
Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.
Given the school closures, the government offered vulnerable children eligible for free school meals a weekly voucher worth £15 per child to be spent on supermarket shopping. But it has been confirmed that this scheme will stop in July, prompting some campaigners to threaten legal action.
“Owing to the corona pandemic, the PM fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer,” a spokesperson said.
“This is not about politics; this is about humanity,” Rashford wrote in his letter. “Looking at ourselves in the mirror and feeling like we did everything we could to protect those who can’t, for whatever reason or circumstance, protect themselves. Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?”
And Rashford followed up on that letter with an emotional piece written in the Times, urging MPs to "do the right thing."
The leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, praised Rashford's campaign. However, he questioned the timing of the announcement that DfID would be scrapped and merged with the Foreign Office: “There is no rationale for making this statement today," Starmer said. "The prime minister should stop these distractions, and get on with the job of tackling the health and economic crisis we currently face.”
While many people have rightfully praised Johnson's U-turn on food poverty, it's vital activists remain vigilent about Britain's responsibility to the most marginalised communities too. By abandoning DfID, the UK has turned its back on the world's poorest people.
Rashford drew on his childhood in Wythenshawe, south Manchester, with his single mum and four siblings, relying on free school meals, food banks, and the kindness of neighbours and his football coaches to survive.
He told BBC Breakfast that the letter was “written from the heart" — and he hopes the government will reverse its decision.
“What families are going through now, I've once had to go through that,” he told the show. “It's very difficult to find a way out. It's very important for me to help people who are struggling.”
According to the Food Foundation, over 200,000 children in the UK have been forced to skip meals since lockdown started because their families cannot access sufficient food. Indeed, a YouGov survey revealed that 3 million people reported being in a household forced to skip meals. Rashford said he could have easily been one of those children.
Marcus Rashford speaks for us all— Howard Beckett (@BeckettUnite) June 15, 2020
• 107% rise in Food Bank use among kids
• 52% of Food Bank users citing mental health
• 72% of kids in poverty live in a working household
• Low wages are no route out of poverty
Government must extend food vouchers pic.twitter.com/5pWnYCwWT9
Since lockdown began in March, Rashford has been hard at work fundraising to get food packages to vulnerable communities around the UK. Although his initial target was £100,000, he has so far raised more than £20 million that will supply 3 million meals before the end of June.
While pressure on food banks has been rising as families have lost income, some have had to close as they’ve run out of food. Low-wage workers and those recently furloughed are particularly vulnerable to payment delays and are therefore most at risk in the hunger crisis.
Meanwhile, the vouchers intended to support children who would otherwise have had free school meals have reportedly often been delayed too. Those who claim universal credit — the UK welfare system that rolls a number of different benefits payments into one — have also faced 5-week delays, Rashford said in his letter.
“The government has taken a ‘whatever it takes’ approach to the economy – I’m asking you today to extend that same thinking to protecting all vulnerable children across England,” Rashford wrote. “I encourage you to hear their pleas and find your humanity.”
“This is England in 2020, and this is an issue that needs urgent assistance,” he concluded. “Please, while the eyes of the nation are on you, make the u-turn and make protecting the lives of some of our most vulnerable a top priority.”