Social Issues

Rashford campaign pressures UK gov’t into U-turn on free school meals

London, Jun 16 (efe-epa).- The United Kingdom’s prime minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday reversed a decision not to extend a free school meal voucher program through the summer break following public pressure and a tenacious campaign from Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford.

The England star drew on his own personal childhood experiences when he penned an open letter to MPs urging them to protect vulnerable families and stretch the food voucher payment scheme for less advantaged children in England over the school break.

After initially dismissing the initiative Monday, Johnson made a U-turn the following day, announcing a 120-million-pound ($152m) investment to be allocated to the free school meal scheme in the summer months. It will apply to those already receiving vouchers.

Reacting to the news, Rashford tweeted: “I don’t even know what to say. Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”

A Downing Street spokesperson said: “Owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the prime minister fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer.

“To reflect this, we will be providing a Covid summer food fund. This will provide food vouchers covering the six-week holiday period.

“The scheme will not continue beyond the summer and those eligible will be those who already qualify for free school meals.”

The 22-year-old’s campaign gained large traction on social media, with politicians, fans, fellow players and pundits rallying around the cause.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer tweeted: “This is another welcome U-turn from Boris Johnson. The thought of 1.3 million children going hungry this summer was unimaginable. Well done to Marcus Rashford and many others who spoke out so powerfully about this issue.”

The initiative kicked off with a poignant letter to lawmakers.

In it, Rashford explained that as a youngster he and his siblings relied on free school meals, breakfast clubs, food banks and the charity of neighbors. 

He had already teamed up with the charity FareShare to raise 20 million pounds for vulnerable children after the country went into a coronavirus lockdown.

Rashford said that food scarcity had been exacerbated during the pandemic, and that the Conservative Party government’s plan to nix the free school meal voucher program when term finished risked seeing over a million disadvantaged children going hungry over the summer.

“Wembley stadium could be filled more than twice with children who have had to skip meals during lockdown due to their families not being able to access food (200,000 children according to Food Foundation estimates),” he wrote.

According to early data from the Office for National Statistics, the payroll of just over 600,000 UK employees fell off the register between March and May during the UK lockdown.

With 80 percent of salaries being covered by the government’s unprecedented furlough scheme, unemployment rates remained at a steady 3.9 percent but commentators have warned that the rate could rise once companies take on the responsibility for paying wages again in August.

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