"I’m by no means a politician," said Marcus Rashford in a British Vogue interview earlier this year, "but I had a voice and a platform that could be used to at least ask the questions." The Manchester United footballer and campaigner has emerged as a prominent figure when it comes to ending child poverty in the UK, and it seems the country's law-makers are listening. After sustained campaigning throughout the year, what's happening now with Marcus Rashford's free school meals campaign?
How did Marcus Rashford get involved with the free school meals campaign?
Back in June, the Department for Education announced its free school meal vouchers would not continue over the summer holidays. In response, Marcus Rashford wrote a letter to parliament asking ministers to rethink their decision. "As a family, we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of neighbours and coaches," he wrote in the moving address which he shared on Instagram. "Food banks and soup kitchens were not alien to us; I recall very clearly our visits to Northern Moor to collect our Christmas dinners every year."
"This is not about politics; this is about humanity," he added. At the time, Rashford had partnered with charity Fareshare to help "supply three million meals to vulnerable people” during the first lockdown.
Thanks to Rashford's letter, the government decided to provide children eligible for free school meals during term-time in England with a six-week voucher to see them through the summer holidays.
What's happening with the campaign now?
On Oct.15, Rashford launched an online petition calling for the government to provide more children with free school meals, and extend the vouchers scheme until at least Easter 2021. This time, however, 322 MPs voted against the initiative. In response to the government's lack of support, hundreds of UK businesses stepped up to contribute to the Child Poverty Task Force set up by Rashford, with the aim of creating long-lasting change.
It took a while, but Nov. 8 saw another major U-turn by the UK government. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Rashford to let him know that the government is now pledging more than £400 million to support poor children and their families in England, per BBC.
As part of the funding, £170 million will be allocated to a Covid Winter Grant Scheme, distributed to councils with at least 80% earmarked to help with food and bills from this December to March 2021. There are also plans to expand the Holiday Activities and Food programme across the country next year, while Healthy Start payments are set to increase from £3.10 to £4.25 a week from April 2021. More details about where the money will be spent can be found on the government's website.
Marcus Rashford says he's thankful for the government's change of heart: "The steps made today will improve the lives of near 1.7 million children in the UK over the next 12 months, and that can only be celebrated."
"I am fully committed to this cause, and I will fight for the rest of my life for it, because in my mind, no child should ever go hungry in the United Kingdom," he continued.
On Twitter, he also thanked the campaigners, charity workers, volunteers, teachers, care workers, and key workers who have "fought for this level of progress for years."
"This is YOUR victory," he tweeted. "Never underestimate the role you have all played. I’m just honoured to be on this journey with you."