Suffolk campaigners and Ipswich MP welcome government U-turn on free school meals
- Credit: PA
Campaigners have welcomed a government U-turn on free school meals after England striker Marcus Rashford championed a charge on social media.
It comes after the government announced it would not be extending a £15 weekly voucher scheme introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic, which provided support to low-income families across the country. The government had previously come under fire after campaigners had to push for the scheme to be extended over the May half-term.
Some 13,016 children are eligible for free school meals in Suffolk, according to government statistics published last year.
The campaign to overturn the government’s plans was further spurred on by the Manchester United striker, who received free school meals as a child, and became involved in a Twitter spat with work and pensions secretary and Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey.
As part of the U-turn
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What has the government said?
Announcing the U-turn, Downing Street said a £120million “Covid Summer Food Fund” will be launched to benefit some 1.3m children in England over the six-week summer holidays.
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The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told a remote Westminster briefing: “Owing to the coronavirus pandemic the Prime Minister fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer.
“To reflect this we will be providing a Covid Summer Food Fund.
“This will provide food vouchers covering the six-week holiday period.
“This is a specific measure to reflect the unique circumstances of the pandemic.
“The scheme will not continue beyond the summer and those eligible will be those who already qualify for free school meals.”
What does the opposition think?
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer thanked Mr Rashford for his assistance throughout the campaign, adding: “The thought of 1.3million children going hungry this summer was unimaginable.”
Locally, Labour county councillor and education spokesman Jack Abbott said the decision will help Suffolk’s poorest families.
He said: “It is extraordinary that the government was even planning to allow children to go hungry over the summer.
“It should not have taken a 22-year-old footballer and sustained pressure from the Labour Party for the government to show some decency, make a U-turn and properly commit to fighting child hunger.
“It has been a truly inspirational campaign from Marcus Rashford, a remarkable young man who has fought for this U-turn with such humility, grace and determination. Not only is he one of our country’s best strikers, he has shown himself to be one of our best campaigners too.
“This will make such a difference to the 13,000 children who are eligible for free school meals in Suffolk - hundreds of thousands more across the country will benefit too. “Child hunger does not stop for the summer holidays, so it is a relief that humanity has finally prevailed.”
Ipswich MP Tom Hunt – a Conservative – had voiced his opposition to the government’s earlier decision not to extend the scheme, citing a report which revealed one in four Ipswich children are living in poverty. He also said he would have voted against the government should a motion have been tabled.
Mr Hunt said: “I am pleased the government has listened to the concerns raised and has decided to extend free school meal vouchers over the summer as part of a new fund. This is an issue I have been intimately involved in as a member of the Education Committee and I know that for many families in Ipswich these vouchers are an essential source of support during Covid-19.
“The Covid-19 outbreak has been an exceptional time and it’s important we are ready to implement exceptional measures to ensure that no child is left behind.
“We will be dealing with the impact of Covid-19 on children’s education for many more months and years to come and it would only have compounded these issues if we didn’t do everything it takes to ensure children come through the summer holidays well-nourished.”
What do food banks say?
Maureen Reynel MBE, founder of FIND Food Bank in Ipswich, welcomed the government’s U-turn, but said more needs to be done to ensure she does not see an increase in referrals.
Mrs Reynel said: “I’m glad they have extended the scheme – I have been receiving referrals from local schools to help feed young children.
“There have been issues in the past with these voucher schemes, but if they can get it working then of course that is a good thing.
“I do however have fears that some parents may spend the £90 all at once as budgeting can be difficult. What I would like to see is schools continue to refer parents on top of this scheme so we can ensure that there is food in the cupboards of every children’s home.
“If you can’t feed a child’s belly, then you can’t feed their mind.”
Mrs Reynel is continuing to ask for support for her food bank, with demand remaining high throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Among the items needed for donation are fresh fruit and vegetables.
Those who wish to donate can do so by visiting the FIND website.