Following last week’s defeat in the Commons of the Labour motion for free school meals during holidays until Easter 2021, many councils and local businesses have taken action to help provide for children who need it most this half term.
However, many have argued that the considerable community response is clear evidence that the government has overlooked the pressing issue of child food poverty in the UK – a crisis notably worsened by the pandemic.
‘Turning a blind eye’ on child food poverty
Last week, Labour’s proposal to extend the free school meals scheme to during holidays was defeated after 322 members of the parliament voted against the policy.
The proposed scheme, which was backed by Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rushford, would have provided food vouchers worth £15-a-week to families with children eligible for free school meals in the UK between now and Easter.
The government reached the decision that they would not continue to offer free school meals during holidays.
This was based on the fact that £63 million had already been provided to councils for supporting struggling families and had also increased welfare support by £9.3bn, including raising Universal Support by £20 a week.
Currently, around 3 in 10 children in the UK rely on free school meals.
The government decision created a Twitter storm between Conservative MPs and campaigner Marcus Rushford.
The 22-year-old footballer made claims that the government was ‘turning a blind eye’ on child food poverty in the UK.
The campaigner, who has previously been awarded an MBE for efforts to tackle child food poverty, tweeted:
“Paying close attention to the Commons today and to those who are willing to turn a blind eye to the needs of our most vulnerable children, 2.2M of them who currently qualify for Free School Meals. 42% newly registered. Not to mention the 1.5M children who currently don’t qualify.”
He also highlighted how the pandemic has intensified the country’s food poverty crisis which must be urgently addressed:
“Since March 32% of families have suffered a drop in income… 13.2% rise in unemployment expected… We aren’t in the same position we were in in the Summer, it’s much worse. The number of children with little to no access to food has risen significantly.
“If you feed children properly, you increase educational attainment, boost life chances and, therefore, cut costs in the long run.” The attainment gap btw between disadvantaged and those better off is estimated to be 75%. A result of school closures…”
Whilst Rushford’s trending tweets gained huge support on Twitter, some Conservatives MPs replied to his tweets with arguments that vouchers would have been an ‘excessive’ use of resources and ‘increased dependency’ on the state.
Conversative MP for Wycombe, Steve Baker, replied:
“No one will be turning a blind eye and it is wrong to suggest anyone would. Not destroying the currency with excessive QE is also one of our duties.”
Ben Bradley, Conservative MP for Mansfield, also wrote:
“Gov has lots of responsibilities: supporting the vulnerable, helping people to help themselves, balancing the books. Not as simple as you to make out Marcus.
“Extending FSM to schools passes responsibility for feeding kids away from parents, to the State. It increases dependency.”
Ben Bradley was forced to apologise last week for suggesting that free school meal vouchers over holidays would have, in his opinion, been inevitably misused to fuel crime. He wrote:
“At one school in Mansfield 75% of kids have a social worker, 25% of parents are illiterate. Their estate is the centre of the area’s crime.
“One kid lives in a crack den, another in a brothel. These are the kids that most need our help, extending FSM doesn’t reach these kids.”
The Conservative MP claimed that his tweet had been ‘totally taken out of context’. The tweet has since been taken down.
Many twitter users were quick to point out that the Eat Out to Help Out scheme over August cost the government over £522 million, with over 64 million meals claimed nationally.
Yet the government claims to not have the funds to continue to provide free school meals over holidays to disadvantaged children.
“We need to support each other”
In response, a growing number of councils have stepped up to provide for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Among the councils promising to provide vouchers over the holidays are Labour-run Birmingham City Council and Tory-run Staffordshire and Kensington and Chelsea.
Newcastle City Council has promised to provide packed lunches for eligible children.
Greater Manchester will be offered 1,000 vouchers to children to spend in the Co-op during the October half term.
The decision has also sparked action from small local businesses and foodbanks. In Oxfordshire, one cafe is offering meals to children during half term for £1 a day, funded by donations from members of the public.
Agata Towpik, owner of café Marcopolo said that she believes locals and small businesses must unite to help support financially disadvantaged children over the holidays:
“The Government really should think about the most vulnerable. We do not know how long it will take to sort out this Covid situation. So many people have lost jobs, so there should be money for free meals for kids.
“If the Government cannot offer to help vulnerable children, local people and businesses will. We need to support each other.”
“Our children should be first in line”
More than 200 children’s writers have signed an open letter to the government asking for ‘organised’ financial help. Contributing authors include Cressida Cowell, Malorie Blackman and Frank Cottrell Boyce.
In the letter, the children’s authors state that “no child in this nation should go hungry this winter” because of the pandemic.
Unsaid spoke to children and young adults’ author Natalie Reeves Billing who explained that she feels strongly about the campaign for free school meals during holidays.
She understands, from personal experience, the reliance many families have on the scheme:
“For me, if not for my school meals, I’m sure I would have gone hungry many times. You see, I had just enough for bus fare each day, and my school was quite away from my home. I would have to make a decision between an hour walk and a meal, which isn’t something parents should be facing in this day and age.
“In these unprecedented times, families should be able to feed their children. Surely, that should be high on societies agenda. When it comes to help needed for the nation, our children should be first in line.
“Some families are on the bread line in ways most of us couldn’t imagine: I’ve seen it first hand, through the eyes of the community centres I work with, and the people who rely on their food banks and food co-operatives.
“Extending free school meals could be the difference between making it to the next pay-check or not.”
But, for now, it is down to the decisions of councils and continued efforts of the public to help children most in need.