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Bravo Marcus Rashford. But it shouldn’t have taken a footballer to show the serious food poverty in this country

The Conservative Party sometimes likes to deny that poverty exists. And how many Tory MPs have ever come close to encountering it? 

James Moore
Tuesday 16 June 2020 13:57 BST
Marcus Rashford pleads for Government rethink on free school meal vouchers

He’s a 22-year-old footballer. He shouldn’t be the one having to do this.” This was the opinion of Gary Lineker on the subject of Marcus Rashford’s successful campaign to extend school meal vouchers through the summer holidays.

And he’s right. It shouldn’t have required the Manchester United and England striker to make the point. But it was necessary.

Rashford is a rarity in modern Britain: he’s a prominent figure who knows what it’s like to rely on free school meals, and sometimes on food banks.

People like him are extremely rare in government, the criminal justice system, the media, the BBC, big business, take your pick.

The original decision not to extend summer holiday meals vouchers had been signed off by a Conservative cabinet drawn from the ranks of the privileged and entitled elite.

Around two thirds-of them went to private schools against roughly 7 per cent of the UK population.

The Conservative Party sometimes likes to deny poverty exists, because there’s Universal Credit and all that (and yes, I could write a separate column about all the problems with Universal Credit).

While some of its MPs are just cruel thugs in suits, some may be motivated by ignorance because, well, how many Tory MPs have ever come close to encountering it?

And let’s be honest, how many MPs of all parties have ever come close to encountering it?

Too few. Far too few.

It has an impact when you’re among the “free kids”, which included my brother and me for a while, although I don’t think we had it as hard as Rashford did growing up.

When I was at school, you were singled out in class when, at the start of the week, your lunch arrangements were logged and they collected the money from those who could afford to pay for their school meals.

“Devastating” was how my brother described that. And he’s right. It’s not something you easily forget.

If there were a few more “free kids” in government, maybe there wouldn’t have been the need for Rashford to stand up and become the de facto lead campaigner against food poverty in what remains a rich country by international standards.

The government’s U-turn may be the most meaningful goal that Rashford scores this year. Thousands of children will get fed over the summer. That’s something we should all cheer.

But the austerity-driven problem of food poverty remains.

Here’s a shocking, and frankly scary, statistic from the Trussell Trust, which is the UK’s biggest provider of emergency food assistance in the UK. In April, it recorded an 87 per cent increase in the number of parcels issued. The number delivered to children more than doubled (107 per cent increase). Think about that for a moment. Think about the number of people who would otherwise go hungry.

Consider, too, that the Trust’s mission is to provide emergency food aid. Short-term assistance to people in dire need.

It isn’t set up to keep people without enough to eat going for weeks on end. And it shouldn’t have to. Yet food banks are among Britain’s fastest growing industries. That’s only going to continue because the Covid-19 economic damn hasn’t fully burst yet.

The government’s emergency support is still in place. But it won’t last forever, and even with it, the unemployment rate is rising rapidly.

The U-turn on holiday meal vouchers secured by Rashford, and the small number of other prominent people who know what it’s like to grow up poor, and the somewhat larger number who don’t but who are possessed of that underrated virtue known as “empathy”, won’t fix the problem.

As the Trust said to me, we need to get to a place where families in this country have sufficient means to be able to afford the food they need. We should be there already.

A lot more work is required. And it shouldn’t take footballers to make that point. It should be obvious.

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