Marcus Rashford forces UK government U-turn on free school meals

Government will provide a summer food fund for struggling families, reversing original position on school meal vouchers.

Group A - England v Bulgaria - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - September 7, 2019 England''s Marcus Rashford applauds the fans after the match Action Images via Reuters/Tony O''Brien/File Photo
Rashford has also raised 20 million pounds ($25m) with a charity to supply meals to struggling families [File: Tony O'Brien/Reuters]

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will provide a summer food fund for struggling families in the United Kingdom, following pressure from England footballer Marcus Rashford and his campaign to prevent children from going hungry during the coronavirus pandemic.

British ministers originally said school food vouchers would not be available over the long summer holiday, prompting the 22-year-old Manchester United forward to take up the cause and reveal how he had relied on such support as a boy.

Before a debate in Parliament on Tuesday, and as some legislators from the governing Conservative Party called for a change, Johnson’s spokesman said the government would be providing a COVID-19 summer holiday food fund costing approximately 120 million pounds ($150m).

“Owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the prime minister fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer. To reflect this we will be providing a COVID summer food fund,” his spokesman said.

Rashford used a column in the Times newspaper on Tuesday to argue that while he may not have the education of legislators in Parliament, he did have a social education.

He has already helped raise approximately 20 million pounds ($25m) with charity Fareshare UK to supply meals to struggling families.

“I don’t even know what to say,” he said on Twitter of the change in policy. “Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”

In a separate post, he thanked members of Parliament for listening and responding to “a cry out for help from vulnerable parents all over the country”.

When schools were shut down in March as part of a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, a food voucher scheme was set up to help ensure they did not go hungry. Vouchers worth 15 pounds ($19) were given to spend each week in supermarkets.

The government now says it will continue the voucher programme over the summer holidays in England. Authorities in Scotland and Wales have similar plans.

Widespread support

Rashford’s campaign drew support from celebrities, opposition politicians and even some members of Johnson’s governing Conservatives.

The footballer wrote an open letter to all of the UK’s legislators on Sunday, describing how, as one of five children of a hard-working single mother, “we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of neighbors and coaches”.

“A a black man from a low-income family in Wythenshawe, Manchester, I could have been just another statistic,” he wrote. “Instead, due to the selfless actions of my mum, my family, my neighbors, and my coaches, the only stats I’m associated with are goals, appearances and caps. I would be doing myself, my family and my community an injustice if I didn’t stand here today with my voice and my platform and ask you for help.”

The move by the government was met with widespread praise for Rashford from fellow sport stars, politicians and the mayor of London. “Well played, Marcus. Well played,” said former England football captain and pundit Gary Lineker on Twitter.

The UK government is already facing intense criticism for its response to the coronavirus pandemic. The UK’s official death toll of more than 41,000 is the highest in Europe, and the government has been accused of putting the country into lockdown too late, costing thousands of lives, and having inadequate stocks of protective equipment.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies