Extend FSM eligibility: Rashford vows to fight on

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Footballer Marcus Rashford has vowed to continue to lead the campaign to end child food poverty after forcing the government to back down over its refusal to fund free meals during school holidays.

Prime minister Boris Johnson was forced into a climb down over free school meals (FSMs) after more than 1.1 million people signed Mr Rashford’s petition calling for change.

MPs had recently voted against proposals to fund FSMs during the October half-term break as an increasingly desperate Mr Johnson tried to argue that the government £63m emergency funding to councils, unveiled in June, would cover FSM holiday provision.

However, on Sunday (November 8), the government unveiled the so-called Covid Winter Grand Scheme, worth £170m, which it said would support “children, families and the most vulnerable over winter” and will be run by councils.

This funding will cover welfare assistant grants to be given out by local authorities to needy households to cover food and bills from December 1 to March 31.

It also confirmed that the Holiday Activities and Food programme will be expanded to cover Easter, summer and Christmas in 2021 at a cost of £220m. These programmes should reach all FSM children.

Meanwhile, Healthy Start vouchers for eligible pregnant women or those with young children will rise from £3.10 to £4.25 a week from April.

It means that the government has now met two of the three demands made in Mr Rashford’s petition. The footballer turned campaigner this week vowed to continue his work to achieve his third goal – an expansion of FSM to cover all under-16s from families on Universal Credit. If achieved, this could support an additional 1.5 million children from disadvantaged families.

The government’s official press notice of the announcement made no reference to Mr Rashford’s campaign, although the prime minister did telephone him on Saturday evening to deliver the news.

Mr Rashford, whose Child Food Poverty Task Force has been working alongside a broad coalition of campaigners including the Food Foundation, said: “I had a good conversation with the prime minister to better understand the proposed plan, and I very much welcome the steps that have been taken. There is still so much more to do, and my immediate concern is the approximate 1.7 million children who miss out on FSMs, holiday provision and Healthy Start vouchers because their family income isn’t quite low enough.

“I am fully committed to this cause and I will fight for the rest of my life for it. I don’t want any child to go through what I went through, and any parent to experience what my mother experienced. I now call on the government to collaborate with the Child Food Poverty Taskforce to guarantee that no child does.

“As a collective we are so powerful and we all have a role to play in this, whether it be volunteering, donating, or as simple as a kind word. I’m overwhelmed with pride that we have made such significant progress. ‘We’ will not give up on our children. I’m going to bed thankful tonight but under no illusion that there is still a lot more work to be done.”

Food Foundation data has shown a dramatic spike in FSM registrations this term, with as many as 900,000 children aged eight and above having been newly registered for FSM since September.

Furthermore, in June, Headteacher Update reported research showing that 43 per cent of families claiming Universal Credit or Child Tax Credits had already cut back on food because of the Covid-19 lockdown.

The financial impact of the pandemic is set to push more families into poverty, too. Already in March, household income statistics (for 2018/19) showed that 4.2 million children (around 30 per cent of all UK children) now live below the poverty line, with 72 per cent of these living in working families.

And research from the Children’s Society published last month suggests that an estimated 885,000 children are living in non-FSM families where parents are struggling to cover the costs of feeding their children during a school day.

Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, said: “This is a big win for disadvantaged children. A win for all those brave parents and children who have spoken up about their experiences of food poverty.

“Funding programmes worth more than £400m that will improve the lives of more than 1.7 million children over the next 12 months – together this represents significant progress on two of the three calls in Marcus Rashford’s petition and the National Food Strategy.

“But we must keep in mind that a similar number of disadvantaged children will continue to miss out on the benefits of FSM and healthy start because the qualifying income criteria are currently set far too low.

“Children’s food poverty, like the pandemic, will not go away until we have a lasting solution in place. We’ve started the journey, thanks to the government’s commitment, and we need to see it through.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We are at a loss to understand why this scheme could not have been introduced in time for the October half-term holiday which has recently finished. Nevertheless, the commitment over the next few months is a positive step forward and should help to address the fact that the financial circumstances of many struggling families will have worsened because of the Covid emergency.

“We would like to see more detail about the longer term plan to greatly increase the funding available for the holiday activities and food programme.”

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “While we would strongly encourage all eligible children to take part in activities during holiday periods, we would question whether provision of food to those going hungry should be dependent upon them attending an activity, which for a whole host of reasons might not be suitable, available or accessible for particular groups.”


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