LEICESTER, United Kingdom – It was a rare U-turn by the UK government led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson: School children in England who qualify will now be able to continue to receive their school meal vouchers during the summer holidays.
The quick turnaround – the government had rejected the proposal as of Monday, only to reverse course on Tuesday – was down to one 22-year-old man.
Marcus Rashford, who plays soccer for Manchester United and the England national football team, had taken to Twitter to push for the change.
Most children in the UK have been out of school since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but those who qualified for free school meals were given vouchers to buy food.
An Open Letter to all MPs in Parliament…#maketheUturn
Please retweet and tag your local MPs pic.twitter.com/GXuUxFJdcv
— Marcus Rashford (@MarcusRashford) June 14, 2020
The government announced at the beginning of June those vouchers were set to be suspended during the summer holidays, even though they had been maintained during the previous school holidays that took place during the coronavirus shutdown.
(The English school years lasts until mid-July, with only a six week summer break. However, the school year is broken up with weeklong “half term” breaks, as well as longer holidays at Christmas and Easter.)
On June 14, Rashford wrote an open letter to the government, calling on them to maintain the scheme during the break, bringing up his own childhood in Manchester.
“My story to get here is all-too-familiar for families in England: my mum worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table. But it was not enough. The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked,” the football star wrote.
“As a family, we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of neighbors and coaches. Food banks and soup kitchens were not alien to us; I recall very clearly our visits to Northern Moor to collect our Christmas dinners every year.”
On Tuesday, he was speaking to the prime minister.
“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,” Johnson said at his daily press conference.
“Clearly free schools’ meals should generally apply in term time… but we have to understand the pressure that families are under right now,” the prime minister added. “It will help the kids from the families that really need it.”
Catholic charities have praised the government’s decision.
“I think the government is recognizing the popularity of this particular campaign, is one thing; and I think the other thing is we are a country that is looking for kindness at this moment in time,” said Mark Wiggin, the Director of Caritas Salford, which covers the greater Manchester area.
“We are looking for compassion and we are looking for the kinder side of the political world that we are in, and we need that sort of ability sometimes to change our mind and to give way to public opinion,” he told Crux.
The food vouchers are worth £15 ($19) a week per child, and are only expected to cost the government around £120 million ($152 million) over the summer.
Wiggin also said he didn’t think the government found it politically difficult to make the U-Turn.
“Quite frankly, because they know that is to the public benefit in a very difficult circumstance of a pandemic where many people are struggling, and increasingly will struggle as time goes on to put bread on the table. I think it’s a recognition by the government of the needs of the people,” he explained.
Caritas Salford isn’t a stranger to the good deeds of Rashford. The soccer star has helped to raise over £20 million ($25 million) in donations for the charity FareShare, which coordinates with food companies to give their surplus supplies to charities, including Caritas Salford.
“The initiative that’s been developed by Marcus Rashford and the FareShare organization in Manchester has really gone to the heart of so many people, and that’s why I think there has been a real groundswell of support for this initiative that’s turned over the government,” Wiggin said.
For the Caritas head, free school means is not simply about food: It’s about poverty and people on very low incomes that are trying to support and feed their families.
“Marcus Rashford … comes from a big family and he’ll know what it’s like for his mum to have been trying to put food on the table for his family from his early days as he was growing up, so I think it really goes to his heart, this issue,” he said.
“I think what is really important here is for us to see food as a poverty issue, and in particular to see it as a health issue and even to see it as a mental health issue. If you are somebody who is worried about where the next meal is coming from or if you are worried about making a decision between buying a pair of shoes and feeding your family, that is a mental health issue and that is the sort of tensions that come into people’s lives and create anxiety,” Wiggin added.
Wiggin also said that for Rashford, it is also about giving back to the community. Unlike in the United States, where professional sports teams draft players after they finish school, European sports teams operate their own academies – at the elite level, this means running their own schools, or partnering with local private schools to provide a good general education alongside intensive sports training.
“It is wonderful to see a young man like Marcus Rashford sticking with is grassroots and really helping the community around him in which he grew up,” he said.
🗣 to all MPs pic.twitter.com/Dc4weMvTHN
— Marcus Rashford (@MarcusRashford) June 16, 2020
Rashford’s activism has also been praised by Caritas at the national level.
Clive Chapman, Senior Officer for Mission and Advocacy at Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN), told Crux that for many households on low incomes, the government’s decision to offer food voucher provision for the summer holiday this year “will be a glint of hope amidst pressures on their finances and insecure, low-paid jobs.”
“We now need to make sure the summer provision covers all households with no recourse to public funds,” he added, since many people, mostly immigrants, are not eligible for the food voucher scheme.
Chapman also alluded to CSAN’s June 3 appeal for England offer parents the choice of cash payments by bank transfer, as an alternative form of support alongside food vouchers.
The method is already offered in the other nations of the UK, and CSAN says it enables families to have increased choice and control over providing for their children and helps to recognize the equal dignity of all families by removing the stigma often attached to using vouchers.
“If politicians are as serious about respecting the dignity of all these families, as they are to responding to Marcus Rashford’s very welcome appeal, then they would do well to offer parents the option for a direct cash payment alongside a voucher scheme, as in Wales and Scotland,” Chapman told Crux.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome