Celebrities and politicians have come out in support of Marcus Rashford’s campaign to end child hunger in England, a day after the government voted against extending free school meals to disadvantaged children during the holidays.
Representatives from sport, entertainment and politics tweeted praise for the Manchester United footballer. Gary Lineker ignored BBC impartiality guidelines to say: “Yesterday they voted against helping to feed our hungriest children during a pandemic. Never thought I’d tweet that.”
On Thursday, Rashford vowed to continue his campaigning, and paid tribute to food poverty charities and their volunteers during a visit to the Greater Manchester depot of FareShare, a charity that distributes surplus supermarket food to those in need.
He said: “The real superstars in this country can be found in the heart of most cities, towns and villages, working tirelessly to support our most vulnerable across the UK. As FareShare and other food-related charities approach one of the toughest winters on record, with demand higher than ever before, it is important that I stay connected and lend my support wherever it is needed.
“When we stumble, there will always be a community to wrap their arms around us and pick us back up. For many of us, that is FareShare or the local food bank.”
Fare Share, which is raising £300,000 to refurbish its Greater Manchester warehouse, has reported soaring demand since lockdown. It distributes the equivalent of 2m meals a week across the UK – more than double its pre-pandemic levels.
The flood of social media support for Rashford’s campaign came as a Conservative MP who defied her party to support Labour’s vote for free school meals during school holidays resigned from her government post.
Caroline Ansell, the MP for Eastbourne and Willingdon, was one of five Tories who backed Labour’s motion on Wednesday to extend financial support for the poorest families through half-term and Christmas holidays amid the coronavirus pandemic.
She stepped down as a parliamentary aide in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, saying: “In these unprecedented times, I am very concerned to be doing all we can to help lower-income families and their children who are really struggling due to the impact of the virus.”
She added: “I do not consider this extension could be in any way a long-term solution to this need, which is complex. There are better ways to help children, including linking meals to activities so they can also benefit from extracurricular learning and experience.
“However, as we are still very much living in the shadow of the pandemic, vouchers are a lever – not perfect, not sustainable – but one which I thought could be used to reach families in Eastbourne and across the country in the immediate time ahead. I could not in all conscience ignore that belief.”
Other celebrities backing Rashford included Hannah Cockroft, a five-time Paralympic champion, who signed and retweeted the England striker’s petition calling for an end to child poverty. The Sky sports presenter Kelly Cates, responding to Tory comments in the debate, tweeted: “Giving kids free meals makes them dependent on the state? What, like Marcus Rashford?”
Among the tweets from politicians, the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage wrote: “If the government can subsidise Eat Out to Help Out, not being seen to give poor kids lunch in the school holidays looks mean and is wrong.”
As well as backing the wider campaign, Lineker paid tribute to Rashford, tweeting: “Love this kid. He shouldn’t, of course, have to do this, but what a hero for doing so, and with such modesty and dignity.”
There was also support from the Brookside and Holby City actor Nicola Stephenson, who posted the front page of the Mirror with the headline “So cruel” and tweeted: “Shame on all of them. @MarcusRashford, you are a hero.”
Labour’s opposition day motion was defeated on Wednesday evening by 322 votes to 261.
The Conservative chair of the education select committee, Robert Halfon, had also backed the motion, which was aimed at forcing the government into taking action and followed months of campaigning by Rashford. Ministers argue that the situation is different from that during the nationwide lockdown and the summer holidays, when families entitled to free school meals received food vouchers.
Opposing the motion during an ill-tempered debate in the Commons, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, suggested that the best way to support children was through the welfare system.
“There are real challenges around youngsters and tackling poverty, and Conservative members are intent on ensuring that we put in place actions to deal with those issues, and that families, children and individuals get the support they need. The best way to do that is through the welfare system; the best way to do that is by supporting people into work, as that is always the best route out of poverty.”
However, the author of the government-commissioned national food strategy, the Leon restaurateur Henry Dimbleby, told the Guardian that free school meal support was the best way to make a positive impact on the diets of disadvantaged children. “However you feel in terms of ideology, that’s true, and you can’t let ideology get in the way of that.”