Free School Meals: ‘When Governments Fail People, Communities Come Together’

Tara O'Reilly
·8-min read
Photo credit: fizkes - Getty Images
Photo credit: fizkes - Getty Images

From ELLE

For some parents, there is a cost to feeding their child: and it’s the choice between whether or not they eat that day. Especially during the holidays when children are at home for lunch - it's an extra meal they have to prepare in between working long shifts or two jobs, extra ingredients they have to search for deals on, and extra money when budgeting is already tight.

In the UK, roughly 1.3m children claim free school meals, just like I did when I was younger growing up in London. These meals are a lifeline. And for those of us who have relied on free school meals, knowing that there are families across the country who will be counting change to buy food or simply going hungry this week – after Boris Johnson refused to extend free school meal vouchers – hurts.

It’s hard to imagine just one child going hungry, let alone over a million in a country that is the sixth richest in the world. This is perhaps why, as the news agenda is filled with the debate around the government’s controversial decision, people aren’t feeling apathetic or complacent, no matter if they have children or not. People are livid.

Photo credit: Matej Kastelic - Getty Images
Photo credit: Matej Kastelic - Getty Images

From footballer Marcus Rashford’s defiant tweeting about the importance of free school meals, to my friends swapping coffee dates for trips to donate tins to the local food bank, we're not taking the government's 'no' for an answer. We’re putting petitions in our work WhatsApp groups, we’re checking in on loved ones who are struggling financially (shout out to my friends who have offered up their savings to me after being made redundant), and we’re rummaging through our closets and bathrooms to donate work clothes and beauty products to struggling mums. Even our restaurants, who have already been hung out to dry by Westminster, are putting their pennies together to make sure their community is fed. It’s heartwarming, and heartbreaking.

Scrolling through Instagram, I no longer see pumpkin spiced lattes, make-up selfies and autumnal walks - it’s info graphics galore instead. 'Here’s a list of all of the MPs who voted against feeding poor children this half term,' a school friend recently shared on her Stories. Prior to this week, I’ve only ever seen her post photos of her boyfriend and home decor.

View this post on Instagram

We are backing the #EndChildFoodPoverty campaign. If you agree no child should go hungry, please visit the campaign page in our bio and get involved. There are a few simple things you can do - sign a petition, write to your MP and share this video to raise awareness. There's info there about the reforms we'd like to see put in place that will make a big difference. If we all campaign together, we can bring about change. ⠀ ⠀ Here's what one family told us about receiving hampers during lockdown:⠀ ⠀ "During the lockdown my family received food crates. Me and my partner were unemployed and unfortunately we are still not currently in work although we are hoping things will change soon. The crates of food were a lifeline during the hard times. ⠀ On the budget we are on, we can only have the regular meals which aren't always the healthiest and we cannot always afford those wonderful items that were in the box, things like, fresh fruit and cereals. It was a joy to receive the extra good quality food. It also meant there was extra money to buy household item essentials like laundry softener, or a body lotion, or a disinfectant, or even a box of vitamins. ⠀ I can't stress how much we needed this. I can imagine the support it brought to all the families and I hope it can continue."⠀ ⠀ No family should need help from a charity to eat well - lasting change is needed.⠀ ⠀ Thank you @libbyburkewilde for this video - it's a clip from the film Tinned Pears which we're excited to release tomorrow.

A post shared by Chefs in Schools (@chefsinschools_uk) on Oct 21, 2020 at 11:32pm PDT

My former teacher, now a mum influencer, posted an angry video about the government refusing to feed disadvantaged kids. She knows what going hungry can mean for children - she taught me and my friends who were on free school meals in senior school, and she had to deal with us when we were hungry and inattentive.

Growing up and being eligible for free school meals was normal for me and my peers; hanging out with my friends in the queue to get your meal token was the place to be. We were all in it together. We weren’t ashamed that we needed support - we were young and we didn't know any different. Collecting food vouchers was as common as it was to have microwave meals with the fluorescent yellow ‘REDUCED’ sticker for dinner when my mum finished her shift.

I remember my mum always saying she wasn’t hungry when I asked why she wasn’t eating, until I realised she was foregoing her own dinner so we could eat. When we didn’t have hot water in our flat because we were too scared to complain to the landlord, friends of mine would arrange extra sleepovers at their houses where I could shower, so me and mum wouldn’t have to spend an hour boiling water and carrying it up the stairs to the bath.

It was only when I moved from the council estates of Westminster to working in Parliament as a researcher that I realised that the majority of those in power often had neither experience of financial struggle at all, nor empathy towards those who do. Rubbing shoulders with politicians who have never had to live off ketchup sandwiches while waiting for their mum’s pay day or listen to their dad tell you they haven’t eaten for days because they’ve run out of money, and spend hours in the House of Commons chamber arguing against free school meals or child support touches a nerve.

It hurts when I see politicians disregard parents like mine as lazy, or not creative enough with their finances. Struggling mums do not have the time to do financial gymnastics to make sure food is on the table. Like my mum, they’re often busy working two jobs, or fighting rent arrears, or paying off gas and electricity debts. The Prime Minister may say that he will make sure that 'no child goes hungry', but kids don’t need warm words from Boris Johnson, they need warm lunches.

Photo credit: Terry Vine - Getty Images
Photo credit: Terry Vine - Getty Images

But while things may look dark right now, my Twitter feed has a plethora of posts offering free meals to poor families by businesses across the country, from small independent butchers, to family-run restaurants, to worldwide behemoths like McDonalds. My friends are too busy organising signatures for petitions and donations to the Trussell Trust to get excited about Halloween this weekend. Everywhere you turn, there is someone making a small effort to help those in need.

And people aren’t doing this because they are told to. In fact, the rhetoric from those in power is that struggling families should fend for themselves. People are chipping in because they want to and because when governments fail people, communities come together.

Holiday hunger isn’t a new phenomenon. But this year has pushed many of us to the extreme - being locked away at home for months, friends losing their jobs, loved ones getting sick - and Covid-19 has shown us the importance of community and connection with those we share our lives with.

I got to know my neighbours over lockdown because I’d sit on the front porch in the sun and read, like a neighbourhood cat. Perhaps this is a very London experience of not knowing your neighbours until something bad happens. But even now, people who were complete strangers to me months ago knock on my window and make funny faces behind me when I’m on a work Zoom call, or show up at my door to drop off a surprise dinner.

Everyone recognises the importance of looking after the most vulnerable, especially after the year we’ve had, and you don’t need to have a child to know it’s inhumane to leave them to suffer. You don’t even need to have suffered as a child to know supporting children is the right thing to do.

Photo credit: d3sign - Getty Images
Photo credit: d3sign - Getty Images

And I’m not surprised - this kind of community spirit isn’t new to me. When my mum, my sister and I moved into our first flat in West London, we had no furniture. I remember sitting on a folded-up duvet in lieu of a sofa - it felt like such an exciting adventure to nine-year-old me. But my newly single mother was struggling to make ends meet. Then our friends at the pub where she worked and had her usual whisky and coke at for years stepped in - all of a sudden we had cutlery, curtains, and even a sofa. Our community had showed up for us - and I was amazed. It was the community spirit then that gave me hope and I guess it’s partly why I'm such a big believer in community now. It wasn’t the government who saved me and my family - it was the friends who bought us knives and forks, and the teachers who made sure I’d eaten at lunch.

Social media didn't exist when I was a child, but now in times like this it brings us together more than ever. We can now show kindness to a stranger by donating to organisations that get food to vulnerable people like FareShare, or by doing a whip-round in our friendship circles for clothes and cosmetics to support women getting back into the workplace.

We’ve all struggled this year. The Coronavirus pandemic has turned our lives upside down and made many of us reflect on what is important, and looking out for those in need is just that, starting with kids. From the big cities to small towns, from big companies to independent businesses - there are offers of support wherever you look.

And hopefully, after our rallying together and defiance, the government will backtrack and support free school meals over holidays until Easter 2021. Our small acts of resistance and kindness might only be just that - small - but they give us hope, and that’s exactly what we need.

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