Earlier this year, the government agreed to extend the scheme over the summer holidays following pressure from footballer Marcus Rashford.
More than 1.4 million children experience food insecurity during the holidays, according to the Food Foundation, while 6.3 per cent of children are worried about going hungry during the impending October half-term.
The rebuff has once again prompted Rashford to launch a campaign urging the government to support vulnerable children.
So far, the footballer’s petition has garnered more than 700,000 signatures, while a number of councils and companies have stepped forward to provide free meals for those in need.
But, why did the government reject the call and what should you do if you need help? Here is everything you need to know.
How many children get free school meals?
In England, approximately 1.3 million children claimed for free school meals in 2019, which accounts for 15 per cent of state-educated pupils.
According to the Food Foundation, an additional 900,000 children in England sought free school meals since the start of the pandemic.
Children of all ages living in households on income-related benefits may be able to apply. However, eligibility for the scheme varies between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland because each nation has their own set of rules.
Why did the government refuse to extend free school meals?
Last week, MPs rejected a plan to extend free school meals into the school holidays by 322 votes to 261.
The Labour motion, which was defeated by a majority of 61, would have extended provision of hot food for children until Easter 2021.
Boris Johnson had urgeed Tory MPs to vote against the plan, arguing that it was not the job of schools to “regularly provide food during the school holidays”.
Speaking during the debate, Brendan Clarke-Smith, Tory MP for Bassetlaw, said: “I ask, when did it become controversial to suggest that the primary responsibility for a child's welfare should be with their parents?”
Ben Bradley, Tory MP for Mansfield, explained his reasoning in voting against the motion, arguing that extending free school meals “passes responsibility for feeding kids away from parents, to the state“. He added: ”It increases dependency.”
The government said it has given councils £63m for families facing financial difficulties due to pandemic restrictions, as well as increasing welfare support by £9.3bn.
How has Marcus Rashford helped?
In June, Rashford first called for the free school meals scheme in England to be extended, saying “the system isn't built for families like mine to succeed”.
Over the course of the summer, the government in England set up a £120m “Covid summer food fund” for children on free school meals. At the time, Mr Johnson welcomed Mr Rashford's “contribution to the debate around poverty”.
Following the news that the government refused to extend the scheme, Rashford launched a petition titled “End child food poverty – no child should be going hungry”, which has so far received more than 700,000 signatures.
“A significant number of children are going to be tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today,” he said, adding that the issue was not a question of politics but of “humanity”.
Amid the campaign, a number of councils across England have come forward with plans to feed vulnerable children over half-term including offers of meals, food vouchers, hampers and direct payments.
Similarly, hundreds of food establishments from all over England have pledged to provide children with free meals during half-term.
After the response to his latest campaign, Rashford tweeted: “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.
“Add #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY to your tweets so I can track them. I will share as many as I can.”
Where has the scheme been extended?
The Welsh Government has announced that free school meal provision will be extended to every school holiday until Easter 2021.
Making the announcement ahead of the October half term, the Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams said the move would provide “some reassurance in these times of uncertainty”.
Similarly, in Scotland, the government has made £10m available to local councils to continue to fund free school meals over the Christmas, February and Easter breaks
In England and Northern Ireland, however, the scheme will only run during term time.
Where can you find help?
A number of councils in England have announced subsidised food schemes in the wake of Rashford’s campaign, including Liverpool City, Greater Manchester, Southwark, Birmingham, Lewisham and Plymouth.
Conservative-led Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council said it would be providing food parcels for families from Monday, tweeting: "No child should go hungry." Kensington and Chelsea has said it will do the same.
Announcing plans for 1,000 food vouchers via the Co-op, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham tweeted: “Was good to tell @MarcusRashford that we, his home city-region, aim to be the first in the country to achieve his vision.”
Lewisham Council in south London, where there has been a 13 per cent rise in free school meal registrations since March, has also pledged to use £19,000 from its crowdfunded Packed Lunch Half Term appeal to provide meals for 12,500 local children, while Birmingham City Council will provide 61,000 children in the city with free school meals vouchers over the half-term.
For more information about the support you can receive in your area, you should visit your local council’s website.
Many offers of free meals have also been made by small independent restaurants or cafes. To find out which outlets are providing support you should check restaurants' social media and the local press.
Rashford has also been re-tweeting many of those who have come forward via his Twitter account.
Some major food outlets have also spoken out. In a tweet, McDonald's announced it will provide one million free meals for vulnerable children, writing: "We are proud to announce a partnership with @FareShareUK to provide 1 million meals for families in need.
"Our funding will enable the urgent redistribution of meals across the next couple of weeks to those in greatest need."
While restaurants and councils may provide some temporary respite, there are places that can help offer more long-term support.
In particular, foodbanks regularly give out free parcels that should provide at least three days' worth of in-date, non-perishable food.
Food banks typically work with different professionals like health visitors, social workers and the Citizens Advice, who will refer people to food banks using a voucher.
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