Marcus Rashford may have seen his attempt to get the government to provide meals for the poorest children defeated in the Commons this week, but the footballer has harnessed a far greater force than parliament in his battle to defeat food poverty – the kindness of strangers.
As news spread that a Labour motion to provide 1.4 million disadvantaged children in England with £15 a week in food vouchers during holidays until Easter 2021 was voted down by the government on Wednesday night, dozens of hard-hit restaurants, bars and cafes contacted Rashford with offers of help.
The Manchester United and England striker’s campaign to end child food poverty calls for an extension of free school meals to 1.4 million more UK children, an increase in the value of Healthy Start fresh fruit and vegetable vouchers for pregnant women on low incomes, and an expansion of charity-led holiday hunger schemes.
By 10.30pm on Thursday, Rashford stated his intention: “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,” he tweeted. “Add #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY to your tweets so I can track them. I will share as many as I can.”
He then began a steady stream of posts, mostly screengrabs from local sites on Facebook, marked simply with where the help could be found. The offers came from everywhere, including Wigan and Watford, St Helens and Middlesbrough, Hull, Falmouth, Liverpool and Lincoln.
Posting his last tweet just before midnight, the footballer started up again at 7.49am. As one observer put it: “Marcus Rashford appears to have set up an alternative government.”
The owners of El Bar de Tapas in Stevenage wrote that the government’s decision not to fund meals was “truly heartbreaking”, adding: “We can do nothing to change that decision, so instead we need to help! We work in an industry that is being decimated by this virus, but cannot use that as an excuse.” Customers applauded the move, offering to donate to costs. “What an amazing thing to offer,” wrote local Rohan Gordon. “Community spirit is alive.”
Even companies with no background in hospitality pledged support, Summer House Interiors in Shrewsbury wrote, offering to make a lunch bag for children in receipt of free school meals, adding: “We’re not sure how successful this will be or how busy it may get so please bear with us – we’re just trying to do our bit for our community.”
The owner of Berry’s tea room in Cumbria offered packed lunches, saying as a single parent of three, they understood what it was like to need help: “You can private message me in confidence and just pop in and collect it. Please don’t feel ashamed.”
In north Liverpool, The Panda Cab offered free lifts to any family needing to get to a food bank, Manjaros in Middlesbrough promised to discreetly drop off food packages, while the Rhubarb Shed cafe in Sheffield offered sandwiches, cupcakes and hot chocolate after seeing another company in Rotherham do the same. “Although this token may be small, we hope it brings a smile to some children’s faces during this dark time,” wrote the owners.
The tidal wave of kindness continued in Leeds, where Muntaz offered free chicken or vegetable biryanis to children between the ages of four and 16, writing: “This is NOT about politics. This is about doing our part to help [...] Good only begets good. We have to help each other during these very difficult times.”
Councils including Redbridge and Southwark also said they would step into the breach. The Redbridge councillor Khayer Chowdhury wrote: “If the government will not feed hungry children, this London borough will.”
Responding to the tweets, which continued on Friday, the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, tweeted: “If you need reminding that our country is far better and more generous than this government, have a look at @MarcusRashford’s Twitter feed this morning. #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY”