In Depth

Why everybody’s talking about Marcus Rashford and free school meals

Manchester United attacker forces government U-turn following public campaign

At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, footballers were facing pressure from all sides to take pay cuts to help Premier League clubs weather the pandemic storm.

“Given the sacrifices many people are making, the first thing PL footballers can do is make a contribution,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said at a government briefing in early April.

But while politicians were quite happy to meddle in the world of football, the government probably didn’t expect Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford to even the score by forcing No. 10 to perform what The Guardian describes as a “humiliating” U-turn on a hot political issue.

What has Rashford done?

The England striker has been leading a public campaign for the government to carry on providing free school meals to vulnerable children over the summer, says Sky News.

On Monday, Rashford posted an open letter to MPs in which he drew on his own childhood experiences, saying that “the system isn’t built for families like mine to succeed”.

“Without the kindness and generosity from the community there wouldn’t be the Marcus Rashford you see today: a 22-year-old black man lucky enough to make a career playing the game I love,” he wrote.

“This is not about politics; this is about humanity. Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry? Food poverty is a pandemic in England that could span generations if we don’t course correct now.”

Rashford also penned an article published today in The Times in which he again calls on the government to help families who, like his own during his youth, have to rely on food banks and free school meals.

“Today I focus on a trophy that stands for something much bigger than football,” he writes.

“A U-turn on the decision to stop the free food voucher scheme continuing over the summer holidays could help us reach the next round but we still have a very long way to go as a country to eventually lift the trophy. In this case, the trophy is combating child poverty.”

In addition to his political intervention, Rashford has helped to raise £20m in partnership with FareShare, a food distribution charity that is providing three million meals a week to vulnerable people across the country during the coronavirus outbreak.

And the government’s response?

The Department for Education yesterday thanked Rashford for his open letter but said it would not reverse its decision on free school meals.

However, just hours before Labour was planning to force a vote on the issue in the House of Commons today, Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson announced a new £120m “Covid summer food fund” for pupils in England.

“Owing to the corona pandemic, the prime minister fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer,” the spokesperson said, adding that Johnson “welcomes Marcus Rashford’s contribution to the debate around poverty”.

Under the new plan, around 1.3 million children will be given vouchers for free meals over the school holidays, The Telegraph reports.

Responding to the news, Rashford tweeted: “I don’t even know what to say. Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”

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What else has been said?

Labour has thrown its weight behind Rashford’s initiative, with Keir Starmer announcing an appeal from his party for the government “to make sure no child goes hungry this summer by funding free school meals”.

Responding to the government’s U-turn, Starmer said: “The thought of 1.3 million children going hungry this summer was unimaginable. Well done to [Marcus Rashford] and many others who spoke out so powerfully about this issue.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan had also backed Rashford’s push, tweeting: “I might be a Londoner and Liverpool fan, but I fully support Man Utd’s Marcus Rashford.” 

In Labour-run Wales, the devolved government’s education minister Kirsty Williams said she had “already committed to providing free school meals over the summer holidays”, and praised Rashford’s stand.

Rashford has also been backed by big businesses including the Co-op, which pledged in a tweet on Monday to extend the free school meals scheme at its 25 academy schools throughout the summer holidays. 

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