By Kat Brown, MA Chinese Studies
The coronavirus pandemic has brought to light many equality gaps in our society. For many, the gap has continued to widen as job losses are at an all time high with furlough schemes extended through until 30 April 2021. Schools in the UK have been through the A-Level and GCSE exam fiasco last year, experiencing rapid u-turns concerning the reopening earlier in January 2021, as well as the free school meal debate.
The motion to provide free school meals which would help those most impacted by coronavirus lockdown measures began in June 2020 after Marcus Rashford MBE began lobbying with the government. His campaigning for free school meal provisions throughout school holidays has been one of the foremost issues at the centre of public discussion.
The motion was initially rejected in parliament, including by Secretary of State for Education – Gavin Williamson – and Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock voting against the extension of the school meal plan. However, the provenance of child poverty and lack of access to healthy foods alongside the decision to sideline the nation’s most vulnerable children has created tension.
According to a report from The Guardian in October 2020, the Treasury insisted that Gavin Williamson had never asked for the extra money to fund the half-term free school meals extension. In January 2021, photos of the food parcels distributed by Chartwells – a private catering company who supplied the subpar food parcels – were circulated on social media.
Williamson was quoted saying that he was ‘absolutely disgusted’ and that his department had made it clear ‘this sort of behaviour is just not right and will not be tolerated.’ Chartwells has since apologised, and the education secretary said schools will be able to offer vouchers rather than food parcels from next week. Albeit this, the Chartwells issue highlights cronyism in the Tory government.
Rashford’s campaign has provided 1.3 million children in the UK access to free school meals vouchers and packages. The footballer, philanthropist and activist has spoken candidly about his family’s own struggles with poverty growing up and lack of access to food. This has spotlighted endemic poverty and child malnourishment in the UK. The government has pledged a further £170m in the winter grant scheme, £220m for holiday activities and food programme, and the rolling out of the national food voucher scheme.
Rashford’s positive activism and leadership has won him a Sports Personality of the Year Award 2020, becoming a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2020. Rashford has also set up his Child Food Poverty Task Force with the help of some of the UK’s largest supermarkets and food brands ‘to guarantee that no child goes hungry’. Currently, there were 4.2 million children living in poverty in 2019, with numbers projected to increase to 5.2 million by 2022. The pandemic will only catalyse this growth.
In a social media statement from November 2020, Rashford wrote: ‘I had a good conversation with the prime minister to better understand the proposed plan, and I very much welcome the steps that have been taken to combat child food poverty in the UK.
There is still so much more to do, and my immediate concern is the approximate 1.7m children who miss out on free school meals.’
“a symbol of hope in the darkness of the pandemic”
Rashford has become a symbol of hope in the darkness of the pandemic. He has successfully used his platform to raise awareness of the issues facing the UK’s poorest families and the growing number of children living in poverty.
Photo caption: Marcus Rashford has become a key figure campaigning for free school meals (Credit: Getty Images).