The UK government has reversed its decision to not extend free school meal vouchers throughout the summer holidays following a campaign by Manchester United and England star Marcus Rashford.
The scheme was set to finish at the end of current school year in July, but Rashford had pleaded with lawmakers to “put their rivalries aside” and make a U-turn as many families continue to struggle with the economic impact of the coronavirus.
Following two days of public pressure led by Rashford, Downing Street announced a “Covid summer food fund” to help feed children from low-income families during the six-week summer break.
The new scheme works out as £15 ($19) per week for each recipient and a spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson says it will cost around £120 million ($152 million).
The spokesperson added that the Prime Minister understands the issues families face during the pandemic.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Rashford tweeted following the U-turn. “Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”
In a following post directed at MPs, Rashford added: “This was never about me or you, this was never about politics, this was a cry out for help from vulnerable parents all over the country and I simply provided a platform for their voices to be heard.
“I stand proud today knowing that we have listened, and we have done what is right. There is still a long way to go but I am thankful to you all that we have given these families just one less thing to worry about tonight.
“The well-being of our children should ALWAYS be a priority.”
‘A forgotten generation’
Following up on the open letter he published on Monday, Rashford wrote an article in the The Times newspaper on Tuesday asking MPs to “help us break the cycle of hardship” of child poverty in the UK.
“Today I focus on a trophy that stands for something much bigger than football,” wrote the 22-year-old.
“A U-turn on the decision to stop the free food voucher scheme continuing over the summer holidays could help us reach the next round but we still have a very long way to go as a country to eventually lift the trophy. In this case, the trophy is combating child poverty.
“I don’t claim to have the education of an MP in parliament, but I do have a social education. I am clued up on the difference a U-turn decision would make on the 1.3 million vulnerable children across the UK who are registered for free school meals because 10 years ago I was one of them.
“I recognize that I have a valuable platform that allows my voice to be heard and I’m asking you to listen to the stories of these vulnerable families. People are hurting and we continue to ignore their cries for help.
“Of the 1.3 million children registered for free school meals, a quarter of them have not received any help to date during the lockdown – a forgotten generation.”
READ: Marcus Rashford calls on UK lawmakers to ‘find humanity’ and combat child hunger
READ: Manchester Premier League rivals come together to support local food banks amid coronavirus pandemic
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a charity which conducts and funds research aimed at solving poverty in the UK, estimates that there are more than four million children across the country living in poverty.
Food banks in the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) have reported an average increase of 59% from February to March, 17 times higher than this time last year, the JRF says.
The Trussell Trust, a charity that works to end the need for food banks in the UK, last month reported its busiest ever period. This included an 81% increase in emergency food parcels being given out across the UK and 122% more parcels going to children.
“The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the depth and extent of inequalities in our society,” JRF Acting Director Helen Barnard said.
“At a time when over four million children are trapped in poverty across our country, it is a damning indictment that so little progress has been made in improving young people’s chances.”
Rashford has helped raise over £20 million ($25 million) in donations alongside food charity FareShare since March, reaching 1,280,000 children.
There had been huge public backing for Rashford’s appeal, with the hashtag #maketheUturn the No. 1 trend on Twitter in the UK earlier Tuesday.
Rashford also called out one UK lawmaker – Conservative MP Therese Coffey – who was widely criticized for her “snarky” response to the footballer.
Replying to a thread in which Rashford highlighted struggling families that may not have access to hot water, electricity and food, Coffey replied: “Water cannot be disconnected though.”
Rashford responded: “I’m concerned this is the only tweet of mine you acknowledged. Please, put rivalries aside for a second, and make a difference #maketheuturn.”
Labour MP Nick Thomas-Symonds replied to Coffey, saying: “Imagine having priorities so warped that this snarky comment is your response to @MarcusRashford’s powerful campaign. @theresecoffey do the right thing: apologize and vote for free school meals for children in poverty this summer.”
Rashford, who made his Manchester United debut at the age of 18, said his family relied on free meals and food banks when he was a child, and says 200,000 kids from families like his are “waking up to empty shelves.”
“Today nine out of 30 children in any given classroom are asking why. Why does their future not matter?” Rashford wrote. “This is the devastating reality of child poverty in England in 2020. This is a pandemic that will last generations if we don’t change our thinking now.
“We should consider that these pandemics we are living through, Covid-19 and child poverty, will have huge effects on the long-term mental stability of both parents and children, and their reintegration into society. A society which, in their eyes, is failing them.
“My mum would go days without sleeping, worrying about how she would cover the next round of bills, worried that I could get in trouble, mixing with the wrong crowds, if she couldn’t keep her eyes on me while working every hour of the day.
“Even at seven or eight years old I recognized her worry, but I also recognized that she was trying her best. I’ve said it once and I will say it again: this system was not built for families like mine to succeed, no matter how hard we are working.”
Former England international Gary Lineker joined the support for Rashford’s campaign on Monday, saying it was “largely unacceptable” that children in the UK should be going hungry.
“I was really impressed with what Marcus is doing,” Lineker told BBC Newsnight. “Obviously when you look at it, though, he’s a 22-year-old young footballer, he shouldn’t really be the one having to do this, but the fact that he is, is important. It’s impressive.
“He’s a very fine young man and he’s a credit to his sport and his family. He’s doing a great job in trying to get the government to U-turn on that decision to stop the vouchers going on during the summer.
“There are a lot of young people, young children in this country that are going hungry and in a country likes ours, a country of quite substantial wealth, that seems to be largely unacceptable.”
“It would be quite the breakthrough if the government does the U-turn that he’s asked for, I hope they do. I don’t think this should be a political issue, it should just be something that we need to sort out.
“It’s a temporary thing over the summer holiday and hopefully they [government] see sense. I’m not sure they will, but I just hope they do.”
On Monday, a spokesperson from the UK’s Department for Education said in a statement to CNN: “As schools open more widely, and their kitchens reopen, we expect schools to make food parcels available for collection or delivery for any children that are eligible for free school meals who are not yet able to return to school.
“Where this is not possible, schools can continue to offer vouchers to eligible pupils. Free school meals are ordinarily term time only, and the national voucher scheme will not run during the summer holidays.”