Editor’s Note: Since this article was written, the UK Government has changed its position on free school meals, thanks largely to the efforts of Marcus Rashford and his campaign. There will now be £396 million of support to provide free school meals this Christmas, as well as next Easter and over the summer holidays. This will help feed nearly 1.7 million children. We have decided to publish this article anyway, to show the strength of feeling and impact that petitions like this can have.
2020 has been nothing short of eventful, and after some of the longest months of our lives I repeatedly find myself saying “surely things can’t get any worse”. In a year plagued by a pandemic, killer wasps and a potential third world war, you would think that giving hungry children a free school meal over the holidays would be an easy decision.
Marcus Rashford, a football player at Manchester United, has been demanding that the government provide free school meals during school breaks as coronavirus restrictions increase. In these already trying times, things have been particularly harsh for families with low income who can barely afford to put food on the table as it is.
Rashford’s petition entitled “no child should be going hungry” hit one million signatures in just over two weeks and received support from local businesses who are already struggling themselves. Now with extra help from business and the obvious support of the public, surely this would garner change from the government. You would think that helping make sure that children get at least one full meal a day would be a priority. In a year of so much heartbreak and pain, the least the government could do is help support those who cannot support themselves for reasons that aren’t their own.
Well the government didn’t think so.
England has ruled out providing children with free school meals over the Christmas and Easter breaks after they did so during the summer holidays, with Boris Johnston himself standing by his decision and claiming that there is already support that has been provided for families struggling to get a consistent income during the pandemic. Conservative MPs rejected Labour’s motion to extend free school meals throughout the holidays, with 322 votes to 261.
What blows my mind is that after voting against the motion the government still claimed they are “absolutely committed” to helping these vulnerable children during the holidays, when they will be even more vulnerable. How can you be 100% committed when children will spend their holidays hungry.
Growing up, my local primary school offered everyone free school meals and my mum still works there today. The school was in an area deemed deprived, so everyone was entitled to a free lunch and for a large portion of the children that was probably the best (sometimes only) meal they would get that day. My mum works primarily in a classroom, but she helps make sure everyone is behaving in the canteen on certain days. She says it’s clear how much these children appreciate the lunches they are given and you can see a clear difference in their school work as well.
Scotland and Wales have both made sure that over the holidays free school meals will be available for children who will need them, which is amazing. However, England has stood by their decision with the defence that they don’t want people to become too reliant on the state. Yes, thank goodness – because how horrible would our country be if children become reliant on food to eat so they don’t go hungry.
Rashford’s challenge to the government has led to some really incredible support, with pubs, restaurants, local fish and chip shops and even McDonalds offering to help provide free meal for children who are eligible. It just shows that even in times of struggle, kindness and genuine generosity can still be found. Still, I struggle to wrap my head around the fact that people think that the right decision when helping make sure children don’t go hungry is to vote against those 1.3 million vulnerable children.
I didn’t want this article to become a rant, but to highlight an issue. Over 2,000 paediatric doctors have signed a letter for England to follow Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’s lead instead of leaving the issue to individual councils where it becomes a post code lottery.
This year has been an odd one for sure, with challenges no one could have possibly predicted, but child poverty has been here long before coronavirus and will likely be here after it’s gone. It’s not a new thing. These children haven’t put themselves in their position, and if help can be provided by making sure they have at least one full meal a day, then that’s something we should do.
It’s easy to become detached from issues like this when we’re busy with deadlines, but if we all take a couple of minutes to find the compassion and at least sign Rashford’s petition, it will help. Although we may not know what our Christmas will look like this year, the least we could do is make sure that some children don’t go hungry on theirs.