By Holly Mottram – Regular Contributor
In a campaign to end child food poverty, the issue of free school meals has become a source of national support, and the government’s response, a source of outrage.
Marcus Rashford, a footballer for Manchester United, has pioneered and popularised the debate on the provision of free school meals throughout the school holidays for children in need. In a movement that has made national headlines, a petition that has gained more than 1 million signatures, and a vote in parliament that has caused national outrage, this topic certainly appears to be a divisive one.
Why has this become an issue of importance?
Arguably, it can be said that this should have been making headlines years ago, but it has only just come to the forefront in the past few weeks, why?
The Coronavirus pandemic has certainly acted as a catalyst for change within the government’s provision of free school meals. With the economy dipping and hundreds of thousands of people facing unemployment, some parents who would already struggle over school holidays have found themselves in an even more desperate situation. Ordinarily, children who find themselves fitting the requirements of having free school meals would be provided with a hearty school lunch for the 5 days a week they attend. However, due to the increased strain on parents during the pandemic, there have been calls to extend this provision over the holidays to provide some financial relief to parents and to ensure that no child goes hungry.
It has gained national media attention largely due to the involvement of Rashford, who himself received free school meals as a child and has spoken about his struggles growing up in Manchester. This provided the additional publicity that the movement needed, and elevated it into becoming a national issue, with millions of people performing some form of political activism on the subject; whether that be signing a petition, sharing something on social media or even protesting in the street.
What are the aims of the movement?
Put simply, it is the aim that “no child should go hungry” – a quote taken directly from the popular online petition started by Marcus Rashford himself. There are calls for the government to implement the recommendations published by a government-commissioned review on food over a year ago. These policy recommendations are:
- Expand free school meals to an additional 1.5 million children
- Make an extra 1.1 million children eligible for holiday activity and food programmes
- More generous meal vouchers for pregnant women and parents of young children
Put in context, these goals were recommended in July of 2019, before a global pandemic hit and thousands lost their jobs. Now, more than ever, these measures are needed for those who are facing the dire consequences of Covid-19.
Why the outrage?
Following the large-scale media attention, the Labour party tabled in a vote in the House of Commons on whether to fund the extension of free school meals over the holidays. In a vote that would dominate news headlines and social media for the next few days, in which all but five Conservative MPs voted against the extension, whilst all Labour MPs voted for it. This meant the vote went to the Conservatives, and the motion was not passed.
The aftermath of the vote was incredible. News outlets covered the public’s response, #freeschoolmeals was trending on Twitter, social media exploded. There were stories emerging that shops in constituencies whose MPs voted against the bill had barred them from entering, protests outside MPs offices and, perhaps most important of all, was that hundreds of food businesses came forward and pledged help.
McDonald’s, Coop and hundreds of local restaurants and food businesses have stepped up by pledging free or reduced-cost meals for struggling families and children. This in itself called into question the role of government, as private businesses were doing what the government failed to do. On top of this, there was fresh outrage when it was widely released that MPs received a £25/day food allowance and had just given themselves a pay rise. Many began to question the way their tax money was being used, with many furious at MPs for not representing their interests.
What has happened since?
Socially there seems to have been an incredible surge of support, money and publicity given to help poorer families, but in government, next to nothing has changed. There have been measures introduced to extend universal credit, and there has been an increase in funding given to local councils, however in the bid for meal provision, Boris Johnson is not budging. In an interview with the BBC, Johnson said: “I totally understand the issue of holiday hunger” somehow when that is coming from an upper-class Etonian, it becomes very hard to believe.
However, the national battle cry for the provision of free school meals has not fallen on deaf ears, with businesses, restaurants and local shops all pledging to help children and families struggling during this incredibly hard time. The Christmas period, though still a struggle, has been made just a bit easier.
To sign Marcus Rashford’s petition, follow the link below:
27 October 2020. School meals: Boris Johnson refuses to move on school meal vouchers. BBC News
Published July 2020. National Food Strategy Part One. Report. National Food Strategy
12 October 2020. Surge in number of UK children applying for free school meals. The Guardian.
29 October 2020. Marcus Rashford school meals petition passes 1m signatures. BBC News
21 October 2020. Opposition Motion: Free School Meals. Parliamentary Vote. UK Parliament https://votes.parliament.uk/Votes/Commons/Division/896