Marcus Rashford and Jamie Oliver among celebs to write to PM for 'urgent review' on free school meals policy

·4-min read

Footballer Marcus Rashford has written to Boris Johnson to call for an "urgent review" on free school meals, stressing a need for reform to keep the initiative going for the long-term.

The 23-year-old Manchester United star was one of dozens of signatories on the joint letter, including celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver, Tom Kerridge and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Dame Emma Thompson also signed, alongside more than 40 other major NGOs, charities and educational leaders.

Addressed to the prime minister on Thursday, the letter called for a policy review to be debated in parliament and published before the summer holidays, looking specifically at eligibility thresholds for families below the poverty line, maximising nutritional value, and eliminating the stigma surrounding free meals for the poorest pupils.

It also highlighted the importance of ensuring school meal policies are sustainable for the next five years, as the UK recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.

Around 2.3 million children experienced "food insecurity" during the first COVID lockdown between March and August, according to the Food Foundation, while 850,000 said their families had used food banks during the summer holidays.

Rashford, meanwhile, successfully campaigned on several occasions last year to get the government to give food vouchers to disadvantaged children - first over summer, and again at Christmas.

Earlier this week, free school meals were once more a hot topic after pictures circulated of food hampers sent to parents that were widely thought to be inadequate.

One Twitter user shared an image of the package she had received to cover five lunches, which was made up of items including two bananas, a tomato, a tin of beans and a bag of pasta.

On Wednesday, the prime minister said the quality of the parcels were "disgraceful", telling Rashford he was "committed to correcting the issue".

Chartwells, the company providing the packages, has since apologised for its service, and has promised to give children free breakfasts to make up for the blunder.

This will apply to all children currently receiving lunch parcels from the company, and will begin from 25 January until schools reopen.

It is also offering free lunch parcels throughout the February half-term.

"The first thing I want to do, personally and on behalf of Chartwells and Compass, is to say sorry," said Robin Mills, the managing director of Compass Group UK and Ireland.

"The quality and quantity of the produce in the images on Twitter fell short of our usual standards."

Mr Mills added that parents contacting the company had received apologies, and further committed to strengthening quality control checks.

Parcels will now be bigger and include better quality produce, Mr Mills said, and will have detailed recipes for recipients.

Thursday's letter praised the government's "swift" response to investigate the criticised hampers, but said that this was no longer enough.

"We strongly feel that now... is the right moment for you to step back and review the policy in more depth," it said, adding that a debate would help with recommendations for the next spending review.

It continued: "Free School Meals are a very important part of the safety net that protects children from impoverished families from hunger and poor nutrition [...]

"The process will require collaboration from politicians in all the devolved nations with responsibility for school food in their regions, and must involve close consultation with children and young people, as well as teachers, charities, NGOs, frontline catering staff and school meals service providers.

"It should draw on evidence of food insecurity and health inequalities."

Tweeting on Wednesday, Rashford thanked everyone involved in the drive to end child food poverty, but said there was still "so much work to be done".

The England striker added: "This year has shown us how dangerous and life altering many children's access to food is and frankly too many children have been falling through the cracks, at risk of being seriously left behind.

"It's 2021. Our eyes are open. Now is the time for a full major review of the Free School Meal system."

The Food Foundation's executive director, Anna Taylor, also noted that feeding disadvantaged children should be a "top priority" for the government.

She said in a statement: "School food has lurched from one crisis to another in the last few months.

"It's time for a root and branch review to put in place the provision needed and help our children recover from the tragedy which this pandemic has inflicted."