Earlier this month, English footballer Marcus Rashford was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) during the Queen’s Birthday Honours for 2020.
It was a recognition of his successful campaign to provide “eligible” schoolchildren free meals during the coronavirus lockdown. The campaign of the 22-year-old Manchester United star with a history of activism and involvement in social causes is called ‘End Child Food Poverty’.
Last Wednesday (October 21), the Conservative majority in Parliament defeated by 322 votes to 261 a motion by the Opposition Labour Party to provide disadvantaged children with food vouchers during school holidays until Easter next year.
Conservative MPs argued against “increasing dependency” through freebies and “sticking plaster solutions”.
But the government is now facing strong criticism for its position, British media report. Rashford has expressed his despair at the Parliamentary vote against the free school meals (FSM) scheme, and has urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to discuss a solution.
He has also found a great deal of support from the private sector.
Who are the ‘eligible’ children, who Rashford has said “are going to bed not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter”?
These are school students who come from low-income families — earning no more than £ 7,400 (~ 7 lakh rupees at current exchange rates) after tax for the year.
According to the BBC, in 2019, 1.3 million children across England fell in this category. In Parliament last week, Labour stated that 1.4 million children were eligible for free meals. The increase has been attributed to many households have lost their income during the pandemic.
A survey in May by the Food Foundation revealed that over 200,000 children were forced to skip meals because they could not access food during the lockdown.
A free meal is provided by either a food parcel prepared for collection or delivery, or a government-funded scheme to provide £ 15-a-week (~ Rs 1,400) food vouchers that could be redeemed at specific supermarkets or local shops.
What role did Rashford play in the campaign?
In June, Rashford raised around £ 20 million (~ Rs 192 crore) with FareShare, the largest charity fighting hunger and food waste in the UK, to supply around 3 million meals to underprivileged children. The footballer also wrote to MPs and spoke with Prime Minister Johnson.
In a new petition, Rashford has been campaigning for three provisions. The first is “expand free school meals to all under-16s where a parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit or equivalent benefit”. According to the BBC, this would result in an additional 1.5 million children between ages seven to 16 being covered.
The second provision is for meals to be provided even during vacations, and the third is to increase the food voucher for pregnant women from the current £ 3.10 per week to £ 4.25.
Rashford’s latest petition is on the UK government website. The website states that “Parliament considers all petitions that get more than 100,000 signatures for a debate”, and as of Monday (October 26) morning India time, the petition had already garnered almost 870,000 signatures.
— Marcus Rashford MBE (@MarcusRashford) September 13, 2020
How has the British government responded to the campaign?
The government had started out by rejecting the proposal in June, but later agreed to set up a ‘Covid Summer Food Fund’ of £ 120 million for the six-week duration of the school holidays.
Johnson told reporters that “I talked to Marcus Rashford today and congratulated him on his campaign which to be honest, I only became aware of very recently, today — and I thank him for what he’s done.”
But after the defeat of Labour’s motion on extending the scheme last week, a government spokesperson told the BBC, “It’s not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays. We took that decision to extend free school meals during the pandemic when schools were partially closed during lockdown. We’re in a different position now with schools back open to all pupils.”
Without the government, is there any help for these children?
While there has been a public outcry against the government’s decision, restaurants, cafes, ice cream parlours and even local governments — such as, but not limited to, councils in London, Liverpool, and Doncaster — have come out in support by providing free meals to children in need.
Many organisations have put up messages on social media asking people not to “feel ashamed” in asking for help.
Rashford identified such organisations on Twitter, and retweeted their messages and locations for people to approach.
What is the connection between schooling and providing food to children?
For Indians, the most obvious connection is in the national Mid-Day Meals (MDM) scheme, an important part of the push for universal literacy under the Right to Education. It has for decades been seen as a crucial part of drawing children from poor and underprivileged backgrounds to school, and of keeping them engaged in their education. The closure of schools during the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the scheme’s functioning in many states and Union Territories.
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