Why free school meals and Marcus Rashford’s intervention matter

Wes Streeting

As one of a small number of MPs who received free school meals, I know better than most how important they are to families living at or below the poverty line. Perhaps if more MPs on the government benches had received free school meals, they wouldn’t need convincing of the need to make sure that kids don’t go hungry this summer.

Yet despite repeated warnings from charities that deal with family hunger, select committee inquiries that found parents living on cereal to make sure that their kids could eat properly and mounting evidence that child poverty is rising, Boris Johnson’s government plans to end food vouchers for children when the school term finishes in July.

The families of around 1.5 million children qualify for the scheme, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Last summer, food banks warned that as many as three million children risked going hungry during a ‘normal’ summer. This year, with coronavirus threatening livelihoods as well as lives, the Food Foundation think tank estimated that around five million people in households with children have struggled to put food on the table each day during the crisis.

There has been an outcry in parliament, but the Tories aren’t listening. Just this weekend, Shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey has launched a petition to put pressure on Conservative MPs to do the right thing. Her intervention follows years of campaigning by MPs like Sharon Hodgson, who also received free school meals, Carolyn Harris, who has been organising food distribution across Swansea, and cross-party groups on hunger and school food.

That’s why Marcus Rashford’s intervention is so timely and so powerful. It shouldn’t be needed. All the evidence is there. Boris Johnson’s government cannot say they weren’t warned. But sometimes it takes someone using their fame and celebrity status to get them to listen. Rashford’s story shows why this matters. His family relied on free school meals, breakfast clubs and community. Without it – as he wrote in his moving letter to MPs – he would not be playing for Man United or our national team.

It struck a chord with me. I remember all too well the struggles my mum had to make ends meet, like so many single mums. Growing up, it never occurred to me that summer holidays would be harder for her because of the added cost, but that was because she went without so that I didn’t. It is one of the reasons why, before I became an MP, I worked for the charity Magic Breakfast, trying to persuade the government to fund school breakfast clubs so that no child turns up to school too hungry to learn.

Rashford isn’t a politician. Footballers and other celebrities are told to steer clear of politics and political controversy. But he has put his head above the parapet and raised more than £20m for the food charity FareShare. He has put his money where his mouth is, and now it’s time for the government to do the same.

The government’s own social mobility commission has warned that child poverty is rising. It will take more than vouchers for the school holidays to reverse this trend, but it would be a start. The existence of child poverty in our country reflects a poverty of ambition from our political leaders. There is no excuse for it. Let’s make sure that kids are fed this summer and let’s make ending poverty our national mission once again.

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