Marcus Rashford ‘blown away’ as cafes and restaurants offer free meals for children in support of campaign

Manchester United and England star shares dozens of offers from small businesses after visit to food charity

Adam Forrest,Zoe Tidman,Andrew Woodcock
Friday 23 October 2020 22:02 BST
Tory MPs vote against plan to extend free school meals over holidays

Boris Johnson was coming under intense pressure to backtrack on his refusal to extend free school meal vouchers through the holidays, as a wave of restaurants, cafes and councils joined footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign to prevent children going hungry during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Manchester United and England star said he was “blown away” by an outpouring of offers of free meals for vulnerable children, saying: “Selflessness, kindness, togetherness, this is the England I know.”

But Downing Street declined to welcome the offers of assistance, which came after the government defeated a Commons motion tabled by Labour on Wednesday to extend holiday meal vouchers to Easter.

Asked repeatedly at a Westminster media briefing whether the prime minister would applaud or praise those offering help, a 10 Downing Street spokesman said only that Mr Johnson had been “clear on our position” that “free school meals will continue during term time and that he wants to continue to support families throughout the crisis so they have cash available to feed kids if they need to”.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said Mr Johnson should be “ashamed” over the refusal to “support businesses providing food for children despite facing huge financial difficulties themselves”. 

And leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “If the government won’t do the right thing, the great people of this country will … But it should never have come to this.”

Mr Johnson’s stance was also coming under fire from prominent members of his own party.

Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, said that the government’s “last-minute” decision-making meant there was now an “indiscriminate arrangement” across the country, when clear national decisions should have been taken “well in advance” of the October half-term which is now under way across England.

Around 6 per cent of children are worried about going hungry during the break, according to the Food Foundation.

Asked if the government should be funding half-term meals, Mr Street said: “I think – at the last minute – you probably do have to fund it, is the answer to that.”

Meanwhile, influential Tory backbencher Robert Halfon – one of five Conservatives to rebel in Wednesday’s vote – told the Bloomberg news agency that the government had been ready to spend billions on furlough and £500m on the Eat Out to Help Out initiative for restaurants, asking: “Why is it OK for the state to do those things but when it comes to hungry children, we can’t help?”

More than 30 councils across England came forward with plans to feed vulnerable children over half-term with offers of meals, food vouchers, hampers and direct payments to parents.

And Rashford retweeted dozens of announcements from cafes, bars and restaurants all over England who want to provide free meals during half-term.

Among those offering help was Southampton Indian restaurant Kuti’s Brasserie, where chancellor Rishi Sunak worked shifts as a waiter while a student.

“We’re behind Marcus Rashford,” said Baker’s cafe in Bolton – offering free lunches during half-term. “No parent should ever struggle to feed their children.”

Pearson’s Bar in Hull, which will now give out free packed lunches, stated: “The government’s decision not to offer free school meals during holidays at a time like this is quite frankly heartbreaking.”

The Riddling Rack restaurant in St Helens offered free lunches and “early teas” for children, adding: “We stand with Marcus Rashford.”

Among the local authorities stepping in to help families in need were Redbridge, Southwark and Hammersmith & Fulham in London, who said they would provide free school meal vouchers over half-term.

Liverpool and Doncaster councils also offered vouchers, which could benefit around 20,000 and 11,000 eligible children in their local areas respectively. Wigan said it was providing vouchers for 10,500 pupils and Birmingham said it would fund meals for 61,000 eligible youngsters

Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson said: “I am having budget meetings where I am struggling to find £20,000 in savings. But we had to find £300,000 to support 20,000 children in the city.

“I know what it’s like not to have food on the table… I know what it’s like to eat a jam butty for your tea. I know what it’s like. I have been there.

“I was brought up in poverty. I am not prepared to stand by and watch when I know families out there are really struggling, week in, week out, for months now.”

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham announced that his regional authority was combining with Co-op to provide meal vouchers to 1,000 needy youngsters.

“Was good to tell Marcus Rashford that we, his home city-region, aim to be the first in the country to achieve his vision,” tweeted the mayor with the hashtag #EndChildPoverty.

Meanwhile, North Tyneside was working to organise food hampers for families in need over half-term, while Greenwich in south London plans to serve up free meals.

Mr Johnson backed down on his refusal to extend free school meals through the summer holidays after a sustained campaign by Rashford, who wrote poignantly of his own experience of hunger as a child and was later awarded the MBE for his efforts to fight child food poverty.

The footballer and his mother Melanie visited food redistribution charity FareShare in Manchester on Thursday, which is naming one of its new facilities “Melanie Maynard House” in her honour.  

“Blown away by news of local businesses stepping up to fill the voucher scheme deficit during the October half term,” the campaigner tweeted.  

“Selflessness, kindness, togetherness, this is the England I know,” the footballer added.

“The real superstars in this country can be found in the heart of most cities, towns and villages, working tirelessly to support our most vulnerable across the UK,” said the England international.

“When we stumble, there will always be a community to wrap their arms around us and pick us back up. For many of us, that is FareShare or the local food bank.”

Asked whether the government would reconsider its stance on free school meals, chief secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay said that all issues are kept “under review”.

“It’s important we support families in need, that’s why we’ve allocated £9bn of additional funding through the welfare system, it’s why we’ve spent over £200bn as part of our response to Covid,” he told BBC Breakfast. “We’ve put measures into school specifically to support disadvantaged children.”

He added: “The issue is what is the best way of getting support to families? And we have done that through the welfare system, through support to local authorities, targeted measures in schools and above all trying to help as many people keep their jobs through the package of measures we’ve set out.”

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