Boris Johnson faced a grassroots rebellion over the free school meals row today as cafés, pubs, parents and local authorities stepped in to offer food to hungry children over the holidays.
Two days after the Prime Minister refused footballer Marcus Rashford’s demand for extra funding to cover half-term, local businesses and charities said that they would do it themselves.
In London, at least five boroughs said they would set up schemes to feed thousands of disadvantaged children next week including Hammersmith and Fulham, which will give every pupil on free school meal vouchers the equivalent of a £3 Tesco meal deal every day.
Wirral café owner Andrew Mahon, who is offering a free sandwich, soup and piece of fruit, said local people were offering to help. “My wife and I, we saw the vote in Parliament and we were a bit dumbstruck. It seems like such an own-goal by Parliament.”
The head of a major private school group has also called on its staff and students to come up with ideas to stop children going hungry during the holidays.
Cheryl Giovannoni, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, said she was “completely infuriated” by the Government’s response to Rashford’s campaign. The Manchester United striker, who forced the Government into a U-turn in the summer, said today: “This is not politics, this is humanity.”
The 22-year-old, who became an MBE this month , said of the councils, businesses and organisations that have pledged to help his campaign: “Blown away by news of local businesses stepping up to fill the voucher scheme deficit during the October half term. Selflessness, kindness, togetherness, this is the England I know.”
Football legend Gary Lineker said: “Well played Marcus Rashford. Check his timeline. Extraordinary from a remarkable young man.”
Robert Halfon, the senior Conservative MP and chair of the Education Select Committee, said the Prime Minister should sit down with Rashford to discuss a long-term plan.
He told the Standard: “During Covid, 32 per cent of families have suffered a significant loss of income. People are struggling like never before and losing livelihoods and jobs.
“It gives another reason why the Prime Minister should sit down with Marcus Rashford and work out a long term plan to combat child hunger in this country, starting with breakfast clubs and holiday programmes where kids can combine extra learning and support with being fed at the same time.”
Asked if Mr Johnson had made a political mistake by not offering special help this half term, he said: “We need to be the party that helps low income people who are struggling with the cost of living in tough times. If we are not about social justice, what are we for?”
Wealthier London boroughs are using contributions they have won from property developers, while less well-off councils are mobilising their networks of community organisations and volunteers.
They include Labour-run councils Redbridge, Southwark, Barking and Dagenham and Greenwich. Tory council Kensington and Chelsea also said it was working on an offer to help children this half term.
Camden was expected to follow suit along with Tower Hamlets which is trying to put plans in place to help children over Christmas.
Hammersmith and Fulham Council https://t.co/P5sAN1KDaj
— Marcus Rashford MBE (@MarcusRashford)
Council bosses warn they have seen a “sharp increase” in child poverty caused by the coronavirus pandemic. H&F said it had experienced a 22 per cent increase in children needing free school meals this year.
Some councils have vowed to deliver food parcels to directly children’s homes, others are providing food vouchers while some are handing out meals at libraries.
Labour this week forced a vote to extend free school meals but was defeated in the Commons by 322 votes to 261.
H&F leader Stephen Cowan said: “It’s simply wrong that so many children go hungry in the fifth richest country on Earth. We stepped in to help struggling local families after the government failed to act this week.”
The vouchers will be paid for entirely by community contributions won by the council in negotiations with property developers. School breakfasts will also be delivered over the holiday to 600 local pupils most in need.
Meanwhile, Barking and Dagenham said it will fund and deliver food parcels directly to homes daily during the school holidays using its Citizens’ Alliance Network, which was set up at the beginning of the pandemic.
Leader Darren Rodwell said: “The rate of child poverty is almost 50 percent in our borough and the Government doesn’t seem to understand the need some children are in.”
He also said they were trying to do something more substantial over Christmas and are putting together hampers.
Southwark leader Councillor Kieron Williams said he had written to schools to tell them they would fund meals this half-term and added: “It’s the decision the Government should have made…since they’ve failed we’re stepping in today to help. “
Greenwich Council has already been feeding its disadvantaged children over the past two years and will step in again this half term.
Dan Thorpe, the leader of Greenwich, said he was “appalled” by the scenes in Parliament and that 43 per cent of Greenwich children were going to bed in poverty.
Liverpool City Council has said it too would step up, with Mayor Joe Anderson vowing to feed 20,000 children currently receiving free school meals.
Five Conservative MPs rebelled against the Government to vote for feeding more than 1.4 million children during school breaks until Easter next year.
Labour MP for Ilford North Wes Streeting, who received free school meals as a child, told the Standard he felt “proud”.
He added: “This is about priorities. Having received free school meals myself, I know what a difference this will make to families. Let’s hope this shakes Boris Johnson and his Government into action.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “If the Government won’t do the right thing, the great people of this country will.”
Mark Curtin, chief executive of The Felix Project, our Food For London Now campaign partner that has delivered 13 million meals to needy Londoners since lockdown began, said they would continue to provide thousands of meals for children in low income families over the school holidays.
He said: “Our work does not stop when schools close. The Felix Project remains committed to rescuing good, safe, nutritious surplus food so that it can reach people who need it most – including some of the 400,000 children in London without enough to eat. This year, we will continue to work with over 80 school holiday programme providers, delivering the equivalent of nearly 25,000 meals, making sure that thousands of families get the support they need to get by. This winter will be tougher than most. But we know that Londoners will always be there for each other.”
Asked if the Government would reconsider its position, Steve Barclay, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, told BBC Breakfast: “We keep all issues under review.
“The issue is what is the best way of getting support to families? And we have done that through the welfare system, through support to local authorities, targeted measures in schools and above all trying to help as many people keep their jobs through the package of measures we’ve set out.”
A Downing Street spokesman said: “We are committed to making sure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected and we’ve put in place a strong package of support to ensure children and their families do not go hungry during this pandemic.
“As we’ve set out, we are in a different position now - with schools back open to all and the vast majority of pupils back in school.
“So while schools continue to play an integral role in the community it is not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during school holidays.”
He said this included extending free school meals support to those eligible when schools were partially closed during lockdown, increasing universal credit by up to £20 a week and £63m funding for councils to provide emergency assistance.