'Selflessness, kindness, togetherness'

Determined Marcus Rashford inspires businesses and local councils to step in after government rejects free school meals extension

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Marcus Rashford’s campaign to press the government to extend free school meals over the holidays may have had a setback this week when Tory MPs almost unanimously voted against the idea – but the campaign is far from over. It may indeed be only just beginning.  

After the vote against a Labour motion on Wednesday (October 21) to extend free school meals starting from the October half-term through to at least the Easter holidays, a tidal wave of local businesses across the UK have rallied and said they will offer free meals to children in need over the half-term holiday.

Labour councils too have stepped up to the plate, with Manchester, Liverpool, Oldham, Redbridge and Southwark among the growing number of local authorities which have pledged to set aside funding for free school meal vouchers for the coming school holidays.  

Rashford, who was recently awarded an MBE for his work in the fight against child poverty, almost single-handedly forced the government to U-turn on free school meals over the summer.

The government had initially granted eligible families free school meal vouchers over the Easter holidays at the height of the pandemic but then refused to extend support into the summer months. But after Rashford wrote a heartfelt open letter to MPs and continued to press the government on social media, the government soon caved in and announced a £120m Covid Summer Food Fund to cover the cost of free school meals over the summer holidays.

When Rashford pressed the government again to extend free school meals through half-term and beyond, it again refused. 

Earlier in the week, Labour backed the Manchester United forward’s campaign, with shadow children’s minister Tulip Siddiq writing to every single Tory MP on Monday (October 19) night, calling on them to defy the government and support the 1.4m children eligible for free school meals who face hunger over the school holidays.

“Labour have said that if the Government does not urgently U-turn, we will force a vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday,” Siddiq wrote in her letter. “This will mean that you and your colleagues will have to take a clear stance on this issue.”

Shamefully, when the Opposition Day debate was held on Wednesday, the vast majority of Tory MPs – save five – voted against support for free school meals over the coming holidays.

They faced an almost immediate backlash from the public, with various topics related to the issue trending on Twitter.

By Thursday evening, Rashford was inundated by offers to help from businesses and organisations across the UK, with Labour councils also signaling their intention to defy the government and provide funding.  

“Blown away by news of local businesses stepping up to fill the voucher scheme deficit during the October half term. Selflessness, kindness, togetherness, this is the England I know,” Rashford tweeted. “Add #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY to your tweets so I can track them. I will share as many as I can.”

Rashford’s Twitter account is now overwhelmed by the different number of businesses – some not even in the food or hospitality industry — pledging support.

Rashford has reposted many of the various offers of help, mostly from businesses’ Facebook pages, indicating where the help can be found, which included towns and cities across the UK from all regions.  

Kingfisher Fish and Chips in Hull, for example, posted on their Facebook page, “No child should go hungry. The government might not care but we do. If you are struggling all next week you’ll be able to inbox this page, with no questions and no judgements and we will happily sort out a child’s hot meal.”

Other businesses offering free meals for children over the holidays likewise pledged total confidence.

The number of Labour councils which have pledged funding for free school meal vouchers for the half-term and Christmas holidays continues to grow by the minute. The latest councils to offer their support include Hackney and Lambeth Councils in London, Portsmouth City Council, and Wigan Council.

Earlier this week, Unite Community national co-ordinator Liane Groves said the union “very much welcomes Marcus Rashford’s inspiring campaigning on this vital issue”, while she slammed the government for its failure to act.

“It is beyond the pale that this government on the one hand will – as cabinet minister Michael Gove did this very week – defend paying £7,000 a day to private track and trace consultants, but on the other hand refuses to stump up relatively modest sums to feed children who face hunger through no fault of their own,” she noted.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey likewise praised Marcus Rashford’s tireless work today (October 23) as well as the businesses, organisations and councils stepping in where the government has failed.

“In his dignified, determined way @MarcusRashford has tapped into the decency and generosity of the UK people,” McCluskey tweeted.  “Kids will remember this amazing young man and the @UKLabour councils stepping up to feed them this winter. They’ll also remember who failed them @Conservatives.”

By Hajera Blagg

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