We can’t let Boris Johnson’s U-turn on free school meals go unnoticed

Having fought and won the same battle twice in consecutive school terms, Rashford may have felt a touch of déjà vu (Picture: LEON NEAL/POOL/AFP)

In the midst of all the US election fervour, another story quietly broke.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson phoned Man United footballer Marcus Rashford to inform him of the inevitable: that the Government had decided to allocate £170million in extra funding to extend free school meals over the Christmas holidays and throughout 2021.

You wouldn’t have to be a cynic to question whether the timing was deliberate.

While Brits were glued to the drama unfolding over the Atlantic, Johnson was quietly rowing back on a political position, which is widely held to be cruel, from behind the buffer of a deservedly popular footballer’s Twitter account. 

This is starting to look like a habit. Johnson had made a similar U-turn on 16 June, when he yielded to another campaign led by Rashford, to extend free school meals through the summer holidays.

Having fought and won the same battle twice in consecutive school terms, Rashford may have felt a touch of déjà vu. 

The strength of feeling in favour of extending free school meals this winter – captured in thousands of letters to Tory MPs – made this outcome inevitable. Some of Boris Johnson’s own MPs acknowledged that before he did.

On 21 October, five Tory MPs defied the whip and backed Labour’s motion to extend the free school meals scheme over school holidays until Easter 2021.

The motion was defeated by 322 votes to 261 in the Commons – a comfortable victory for the Government, but one which sparked an outcry spanning much of society, from the 2,000 children’s doctors who signed a letter asserting that child hunger should ‘transcend politics’, to the North Yorkshire pub that barred Chancellor Rishi Sunak for voting against extending the free meals scheme. 

The day after the vote, one of the rebel MPs, Caroline Ansell, quit her junior frontbench role. She said she ‘could not in all conscience ignore’ her belief that free school meals over the holidays would benefit families struggling during the pandemic.

Now, finally, the Government has done the right thing. To let children go hungry would be to deny our humanity.

The scheme will help stave off hunger and hardship for a great many children and their parents. Without this extra provision for free meals through the winter holidays, more children than usual would have gone without.

Take it from someone who was a recipient of free school meals: this will have affected how kids see themselves, and how they are seen by others

The expenses of the pandemic have been many, from high utility bills made necessary by more time spent at home, to computers and other tech purchased earlier in the year for remote learning. Some households that were already struggling would have faced heart-breaking dilemmas this winter.

So yes, this is cause for celebration. But the delay is not. All the public wrangling it took to change the Government’s course may already have caused children harm, not through malnourishment, but emotionally and socially.

Personally, I’m very grateful for the free dinners I received throughout secondary school. They made life more manageable for my wonderful mum, and they theoretically gave me access to all the nourishment I needed – although I did tend to spurn the cafeteria’s healthier options in favour of a daily dose of chips and beans.

But the less wholesome side to free school meals is the sense of separation they can create between recipients and other kids.

At my secondary school, the children ‘on free dinners’ had to line up at the front of their year group each lunchtime to receive their meal ticket: a battered plastic token that you would hand over at the till.

To my young mind, this daily ritual of queuing separately ingrained in me a sense of otherness, and I suspect some of the children who didn’t receive free meals felt something along those lines too.

If someone on the school staff had really thought and cared about this, surely the system for supplying free meals would have been more sensitive to the emotional and social realities of life as a schoolkid. A simple register at the till would have done the trick.

Of course, the subtle ache of queuing apart is nothing compared to the experiences of othering that children in the same position have endured this autumn.

How must it have felt for those children, when Conservative MP Ben Bradley was accused of linking free school meals with ‘crack dens’ and ‘brothels’ as part of a Twitter tirade? How must it feel to be the powerless subject of an acrimonious national debate?

Take it from someone who was a recipient of free school meals: this will have affected how kids see themselves, and how they are seen by others.

For child poverty campaigners, persuading Boris Johnson and his Government to support children with free meals, both this summer and now this winter, has been like trying to draw blood from a stone.

On 14 October, Rashford launched the Government petition, which called for free school meals to be extended through school holidays. It took another 25 days for the Government to grant that request.

Children in need of support have been under a spotlight throughout this period, and with each moment of resistance from the Government, that spotlight grew hotter and harsher.

The activism of child poverty campaigners pushed the prime minister into the humane course of extending free school meals this summer, and again this winter.

In the next hour of need, whether for the sake of children’s emotional well-being or for the sake of its own image, the Government must act on its own steam – and faster.

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