Covid-19 has hit the United Kingdom harder than a lot of countries, and with schools closed as a consequence, many families have lost the safety net of free school meals for their children. This means that food poverty has become a hot button issue — an issue led by Manchester United and England superstar Marcus Rashford, who understands that feeding vulnerable children is a priority, even if the government doesn't.
Normally, children from low-income backgrounds receive state-subsidized free school meals when class is in session. Rashford, who has raised some £20,000,000 for food poverty charity FareShare, has been pushing since early last year for the government’s free school meals campaign to be extended until the Easter holidays of 2021 rather than only during term time. In a recent BBC documentary, Rashford said that being admitted into Manchester United's youth academy — where he was provided with free food — was a vital part of his development as an elite athlete.
Rashford isn’t the only name in British entertainment that has talked about how formative youth clubs were for them: Anthony Joshua, Lady Leshurr, Young T & Bugsey, and J Hus have, too. Sports and arts programs have been decimated under austerity because working-class institutions are an easy target. For example, the incumbent Conservative (Tory) government’s lack of financial support for amateur boxing compared to other sports during Covid prompted Joshua, the current world heavyweight champion in four divisions, to make a sizable donation himself.
It’s only right that young, disadvantaged people be given the mere basics to be able to pursue their dreams. Every child deserves that regardless of whether they aspire to scale the heights of sports, fashion, music or otherwise. That’s the central tenet of this issue: equal opportunities. I work in the fashion industry, which remains sadly inaccessible to many working-class people.
One would imagine that living through a global pandemic would create empathy and dispel the myth that financial hardship is the result of laziness. But this is Tory Britain. There are some employers who have let themselves down with a callous attitude, but what’s been particularly damning is the government’s “everyman for himself” approach. This individualistic mindset is nothing new: as early as 1987 Margaret Thatcher infamously claimed “there’s no such thing as a society."
Rashford’s efforts to protect vulnerable families have been contested at every step. A particularly shameful episode was the food parcels that the government begrudgingly granted vulnerable families. These packages went viral due to their meager contents, with outrage that the parcel contained £5.22 worth of food despite a £30 entitlement. It transpired the government had contracted a private company to produce the packages. They, like the government, prioritized profit over people. In October, Rashford’s petition to extend the government’s food voucher scheme during the holidays was rejected. One Tory MP, Ben Bradley, was roundly accused of stigmatizing working-class families when he associated free school meals with "crack dens" and "brothels" in a since-deleted tweet.
Per Bradley’s claim, it boggles the mind how food vouchers could be used in a crack den or brothel (the former vice chairman for youth has previously apologized for claiming people without jobs should get vasectomies). It’s evident the government stance is that food poverty is caused by individual failures by parents, which might be true in some cases, but certainly isn’t the case for all. Even if it was, children have no control over their parent’s decisions. They should be protected regardless. For argument's sake: If you believe the benefits system is the undoing of Britain, surely children being underfed and therefore unable to excel in education would dampen their job prospects, thus creating more people reliant on the benefit system in the future?
The undermining of those trying to help is not only political but cultural. As well as the aforementioned J Hus, Black musicians like Nines and M1llionz have committed to bettering their communities. Often unfairly maligned, their lyrical content is blamed for inciting youth violence, rather than the fact it addresses how government neglect has created the perfect environment for crime to thrive in the first place. Rashford has been the subject of right-wing newspapers baselessly criticizing his performances and highlighting his property portfolio. The idea that being wealthy delegitimizes his right to care about food poverty implies it’s abnormal to care about things that don’t affect you. Ironically, this mindset thrives in a country where the majority of politicians and journalists come from privileged backgrounds.
Rashford’s campaigning carries so much power because it puts community at the forefront. His genuine care and selfless motivations are a reminder to all of us that the measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable. One would think that after a decade of xenophobic and racially fueled campaigning against immigration justified by the importance of “looking after our own,” feeding vulnerable children would be the political equivalent of an open goal. But not everyone is blessed with such basic decency.
Social divisions along racial, gender, and sexuality lines stoked by mainstream media and politicians are devices to divide people and erode class solidarity and community. If their motivation was truly the good of the country, feeding its children would be a better use of energy.
While people have been arguing over whether it’s the fault of parents that their children are hungry, there’s been little mention of the fact that the money to subsidize school meals and several other social programs might be available if not for the government’s economic mismanagement and terrible Covid strategy. Our divisions have led many down a path of disdain for our disadvantaged peers, rather than the ruling classes whose decisions condemn them to disenfranchisement in the first place.
When the government refused Rashford’s plea, restaurants up and down the country stepped up to offer free meals to children in need (so did UNICEF, in a move minister Jacob Rees-Mog dismissed as a “publicity stunt.”) This is the effectiveness of community spirit. Independent businesses that are already struggling should not have to pick up the government’s slack, which makes it even more commendable that they did.
As well as providing immediate relief for struggling families, the country's collective rallying also forced Boris Johnson into his second U-turn on extending free school meals over the holidays. It is staggering that he had to be forced twice to feed vulnerable children, but politicians can be shamed into doing the right thing even if their own convictions don’t lead them there. Something else I hadn’t considered until speaking to my mum, whose upbringing meant she was a recipient of free school meals, was how public support for free school meals would have helped destigmatize food poverty. It showed children they aren’t worth less just because they need help.
Bringing these issues to light shouldn’t be the job of a 23-year-old footballer in Marcus Rashford, who despite tireless campaigning and fundraising, is somehow finding the energy to propel Manchester United to a strong season (which, even as an Arsenal fan, I can’t really begrudge him). Overcoming the cruelty and incompetence of this government will require community thinking and everyday people to do more than they’re obliged to. But if we want our children to have a worthwhile future to look forward to, it’s the only way.