Well-known footballer for Manchester United, Marcus Rashford, recently spoke out against the government’s decision to reject a plan to extend free school meals over the half-term and Christmas holidays.
Rashford received a wave of support from both local and international brands, which forced Boris Johnson to back down in the face of such far-reaching community support.
The government’s initial reaction
Labour leader Keir Starmer motioned the plan in Parliament on 21st October, after the government provided meal vouchers over the summer to support vulnerable families. Disappointingly, whereas 261 members voted to extend free school meals, 322 gave a resounding no; all of the latter being Conservative members. Boris Johnson defended this refusal, stating “I totally understand the issue of holiday hunger […] The debate is how you deal with it.”
After receiving backlash for their vote, many Conservative MPs engaged in inappropriate exchanges on Twitter, such as Ben Bradley who replied to a tweet referring to the free school meal plan as “cash direct to a crack den and brothel” stating “that’s what FSM vouchers in the summer effectively did…”. Bradley has since deleted the thread and claims his comments were taken ‘out of context’.
Marcus Rashford and the nation’s response
Outraged by the blatant ignorance of MPs, Marcus Rashford spoke out on Twitter in a longer statement:
“A significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of the comments that have been made today […] We need a long-term sustainable framework, and thanks to the 300,000+ signatures, we will now be offered the opportunity to discuss this.”
Rashford started a petition that has now reached over a million signatures, captioned “End child food poverty – no child should be going hungry”. In his summary, Rashford suggests that the government should implement the recommendations from the National Food Strategy to “expand access to Free School Meals, provide meals & activities during the holidays […] & increase the value of and expand the Healthy Start Scheme”.
As the petition reached the minimum requirement of well over 100,000 signatures, the proposal to create a long-term plan to extend free school meals over school holidays will be considered for debate in Parliament.
In support of Rashford’s moving and motivational words, many shops, restaurants, and cafés across the country, as well as local councils, provided free or discounted meals for children of families in financial hardship over the half-term break. Rashford made a conscious effort to highlight many, if not all, of the participating establishments on his Twitter, pinning them with their location.
Big brands showing their support
Many brands, such as McDonald’s, Tesco, ASDA, and the Co-Op have expressed their support for Marcus Rashford’s campaign throughout the discourse surrounding #endchildfoodpoverty this year, many through working with FareShare – a UK based charity dedicated to fighting hunger and food waste.
Burberry is the most recent to join this list, after releasing an advert that encourages young people to feed their creative aspirations, featuring a team of dancers performing an expressive piece to the song Singing in the Rain.
This ad launches their campaign and collaboration with Rashford to support youth organisations in cities such as Manchester and London, as well as global youth charities. Burberry will also continue to donate towards FareShare, and fund over 200,000 meals to be distributed through charities in the UK.
The vice president of corporate responsibility at Burberry, Pam Batty, stated:
“Supporting communities has long been part of what Burberry stands for […] This year has substantially impacted young people, and we wanted to mark this festive season by giving back to the incredible youth centres and charities making a life-changing difference […]”
Boris Johnson makes a U-turn after steady backlash
The Prime Minister has spent the last few weeks refusing to go back on his decision against extending the scheme, while acknowledging Rashford’s efforts in garnering community support. However, this past weekend Johnson contacted Marcus to appraise him of the government’s new stance and proposal for feeding poor children over the winter months.
The new plan includes extending free meals and activities for those eligible, as recommended by Rashford and the National Food Strategy, over school holidays through to Christmas 2021 and a £170 million COVID winter grant scheme, to help lower-income families who have been affected by the impacts of the pandemic.
It is hard to believe that this sudden reconsideration didn’t stem from the constant criticism and backlash the PM and his government faced for allowing children to go hungry over the school holidays, as well as witnessing the overwhelming and well-deserved support Rashford received for his efforts.
While the government has now put forward a plan to support vulnerable families in these hard times, it is important to remember what their initial lack of cooperation demonstrates. The 332 Conservative members who voted against extending free school meals revealed not only their lack of empathy, but also how truly distanced they are from the issues their constituents face every day.
If it wasn’t for Marcus Rashford and the nation’s efforts to support those children in financially unstable families, thousands more children would have gone hungry over the holidays.
Today, some 1.4 million children are eligible for free school meals, most of whom rely on them as their only substantial meal of the day.