THE Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, has praised Marcus Rashford, the England and Manchester United footballer, for persuading the Government to provide food vouchers during the school summer holidays to children who are eligible for free school meals.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson announced on Tuesday that a new £120-million “Covid summer food fund” would be introduced in England. Families entitled to free school meals will receive a one-off voucher at the end of the school term worth £15 a week for the six-week school break, which can be spent in supermarkets. No such provision was due to be made, and the Labour Party had been about to force a vote on the issue, risking a rebellion from Conservative backbenchers.
“I’m delighted that our poorest children will now be able to get free school meals over the summer break,” Dr Walker said on Tuesday. “Marcus Rashford, who has led the campaign, knows from his own upbringing here in Manchester the challenges families face. I am grateful to him for the passion and energy he has put into the campaign.”
Dr Walker continued: “For the last few years, church groups and their partners have worked hard to counter the hardship experienced by families on very limited incomes who have extra meals to afford over the school holidays. Coronavirus only makes the task harder, and the extent of poverty deeper, this year. Churches will still be at the forefront of tackling food poverty over summer 2020, but at least we will not now have this extra challenge to face.”
Speaking to the BBC on Wednesday, Mr Rashford said: “I don’t want this to be the end of it because there are more steps that need to be taken and we just need to analyse the response. People are struggling all year around, so we still need to learn more about the situation people are in and how we can help them best.”
Before the announcement, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, had promoted on his Twitter feed Mr Rashford’s open letter to MPs on Monday. Bishop North wrote: “Please, everyone, read this letter. And please, HM Government, extend the free school meals voucher scheme into the Summer Holidays.”
In the letter, Mr Rashford described how, when he was a child, his family had “relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of neighbours and coaches. Food banks and soup kitchens were not alien to us.”
He went on to cite the Food Foundation’s estimate that 200,000 children “have had to skip meals during lockdown due to their families not being able to access food”.
The chief executive of the Children’s Society, Mark Russell, said on Tuesday: “We are delighted that the Government has decided to do the right thing by extending the Free School Meals provision over the coming summer holidays. This much-needed step will prevent the 1.3 million children who are eligible for free school meals from going hungry during what is likely to be a very difficult summer for many families and young people.
“The Government should now prioritise improving the issues around accessing the voucher scheme — including providing more support for newly eligible parents to register — so families are not still left facing crisis.
“In the longer term, temporary extensions to eligibility for free school meals, such as for those with No Recourse to Public Funds, should be made permanent, and provision should be extended to more low-income working families who unfairly miss out. This will provide a vital lifeline to all children.”