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An Unexpected Hero Takes Aim at UK Child Hunger

Football Star’s Free School Meals Campaign Should Spur Wider Change

The UK government agreed to provide free school meal replacements to children from low income families in England over the summer holidays following a campaign involving footballer Marcus Rashford.  © Martin Rickett/PA Wire (Press Association via AP Images)

There’s a knife-edge moment football fans the world over know, when a stadium’s collective heart stops as a striker takes aim, shoots … and scores. Marcus Rashford, who plays for Manchester United and England’s national men’s team, delivered a game-changing moment like that this week when the United Kingdom government bowed to his campaign to ensure schoolchildren don’t go hungry over the summer holidays.

In an open letter describing the financial difficulties his mother faced keeping him and his siblings fed when they were growing up, Rashford took aim at the UK government’s unconscionable decision not to provide free school meal replacements for children from low-income families in England during the summer holidays, after having provided such support during Covid-19 school closures.

Faced with Rashford’s campaign, a youth activist-led petition, the threat of litigation, and mounting public outcry, the government announced a £120 million fund to continue children’s meals over the summer break.

Activists have long flagged serious concerns about “holiday hunger.” Human Rights Watch’s recent research and work by others highlighted the sharp increase in children going without food during the Covid-19 school closures.

This news from England, and a similar announcement from Scottish authorities yesterday, will be welcome relief to families living on the breadline. Three things now need to happen to help tackle child food poverty.

First, given the problems the current meal voucher system has caused in England, schools should be allowed to use alternatives. The Welsh and Scottish governments have flexible approaches, allowing families to receive cash transfers, food packages, or vouchers.

Second, the government needs to learn from the food programs it implements this summer as well as what other countries in the UK are doing and put in place programs in England for children who need this support – whether schools are open or not.

And third, we need a national conversation about the right to food and why children in the UK are going hungry. A new report shows that 7 in 10 families who receive child-related social security support cannot afford essential items. The UK should incorporate the right to food into domestic law and ensure low-income families have enough social security support to feed their families.

Rashford secured victory by speaking candidly about his own childhood. It is time now to secure a win for the next generation of children.

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