London (Brussels Morning) A campaign to extend free school meals over the holidays in England is gaining increased momentum, pressuring the government to u-turn on its decision not to offer it over the October half-term break.
Ministers have not backed down, however, as the week-long holiday began this week and the campaign, spearheaded by Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford, has gained support from businesses pledging to fill the void left by the scheme.
In England, any child who is part of a household reliant on income-related benefits is eligible for free school meals, amounting to about 1.3 million children last year.
Some local councils are offering meal vouchers for cash-strapped families in lieu of the scheme. Various businesses, such as cafes, restaurants and takeaways, have also offered help for eligible children over half term.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock spoke on BBC this morning to say providing meals through councils was the best way to do it as they would know what was happening on the ground.
Hancock also stressed the government had given local councils £63 million and increased Universal Credit, a welfare payment to help with living costs.
Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield said that providing money through councils means it gets tied up in bureaucracy, whereas the free school meals scheme means children get food directly and immediately.
“There’ll be children who are desperate for that help and that’s something that really makes this a very urgent priority for Boris Johnson when he gets to his desk today”, she said.
Ministers are also pressuring the UK prime minister to reverse the government’s decision not to extend the scheme over the holidays, which it did during the country’s Easter break, and with the help of Rashford’s advocacy, also did during the Summer, but it has refused to do so a third time despite the pandemic causing rising unemployment and precarity for many more families.
Rashford’s petition to end child poverty gained almost 900,000 signatures Monday morning.
The petition calls for expanding access to Free School Meals, providing meals and activities during holidays to stop holiday hunger and increasing the value of and expand the Healthy Start scheme — a programme that gives people free vouchers every week to spend on milk, fruit, vegetables and pulses.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are already offering meal vouchers to its eligible residents.