England striker Marcus Rashford said he would fight on after the government confirmed it would not provide free school meal vouchers during the summer.
The Manchester United player wrote an emotional open letter to MPs in which he said “the system isn’t built for families like mine to succeed”.
But the Department for Education said it would not reverse its decision.
Rashford, 22, responded by tweeting “we aren’t beaten yet” and “MPs, please #maketheUturn”.
Rashford has raised about £20m to supply three million meals to vulnerable people while working with charity FareShare UK during the coronavirus lockdown.
Campaigners have threatened to bring legal action against the government for not extending the food voucher scheme into the summer holidays.
In his letter, Rashford drew on his own experience of relying on free school meals and food banks growing up. He said his story was “all too familiar for families in England”.
Sonja from Basingstoke, who has three teenage children, told BBC Radio 5 live Drive she found herself out of work because of the pandemic and does not start her new job until September. She said she was in “real trouble” without the vouchers in the meantime.
“I’m relying on the £60 I get every fortnight from free school meal vouchers to do my food shopping,” she said.
“There are lots of us out there that have found ourselves on benefits through no fault of our own. We really are struggling to make ends meet and I’m not sure too many people understand how difficult it is – Marcus obviously does.”
Gary Lineker told BBC Newsnight he was “very impressed” with Rashford’s efforts.
He said he understands that “kids wouldn’t ordinarily be fed during the summer holidays”, but these are “very, very difficult times”.
‘Written from the heart’
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Rashford said: “It’s written from the heart and it’s about how my life was at the moment – the letter is to open up and let people understand the impact on families and to know I’ve done the right thing.
“What families are going through now, I’ve once had to go through that – and it’s very difficult to find a way out. It’s very important for me to help people who are struggling – whether the outcome changes or doesn’t change, that’s why I wrote it.”
The Department for Education said: “As schools open more widely, and their kitchens reopen, we expect schools to make food parcels available for collection or delivery for any children that are eligible for free school meals who are not yet able to return to school.
“Where this is not possible, schools can continue to offer vouchers to eligible pupils.”
A spokesperson also pointed to the new £63m local authority welfare assistance scheme to support the most vulnerable families, and its Holiday Activities and Food programme, which offers activities and free meals in the summer holidays.
Families claiming free school meals have been issued with either an electronic voucher or gift card – worth £15 per child, per week – to spend at supermarkets, while schools have been closed.
Who qualifies for free school meals?
In England, about 1.3 million children from low-income backgrounds are eligible for free school meals.
To qualify, their household must earn a maximum income of £7,400 a year after tax, not including any benefits. The full criteria is listed here.
A child who qualifies remains eligible until 31 March 2022, whether in primary or secondary education. Children from families who meet certain criteria can also be eligible for free school meals before they start school.
During the pandemic, the government says it expects schools to continue to support eligible children in term time. This includes:
- Food parcels
- A national voucher scheme
- Vouchers for a local shop or supermarket
This provision included the Easter and May half-term holidays, but the voucher schemes will not run during the summer holidays.
In Wales, the government will provide free school meal vouchers until schools reopen, or at least until the end of August.
A survey by the Food Foundation in May said that more than 200,000 children in the UK have had to skip meals because their family could not access enough food during lockdown.
‘This is not about politics, it’s about humanity’
In the letter, Rashford wrote: “My mum worked full-time, earning the minimum wage, to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table, but it was not enough.
“The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked.”
Rashford added his plea for the government to “make the U-turn and make protecting the lives of some of our most vulnerable a top priority” was “not about politics” but about “humanity”.
He added it was about “looking at ourselves in the mirror and feeling like we did everything we could to protect those who can’t, for whatever reason or circumstance, protect themselves”.
Rashford wrote: “Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to be hungry?”
The United youth-team graduate, who is one of five children, added: “As a black man from a low-income family in Wythenshawe, Manchester, I could have been just another statistic.
“Instead, due to the selfless actions of my mum, my family, my neighbours, and my coaches, the only stats I’m associated with are goals, appearances and caps.
“I would be doing myself, my family and my community an injustice if I didn’t stand here today with my voice and my platform and ask you for help.”
“Ten years ago, I would have been one of those children, and you would never have heard my voice and seen my determination to become part of the solution,” added Rashford.
“Food poverty in England is a pandemic that could span generations if we don’t course correct now.”
Rashford stated the government’s Universal Credit benefit system “is simply not a short-term solution” to the issue of food poverty, because “I am fully aware that the majority of families applying are experiencing five-week delays”.
He is concerned child poverty is “only going to get worse” when the government’s furlough scheme ends.
Rashford added that with many children still not able to return to school and have more of their nutritional needs met “we’re encouraging this cycle of hardship to continue”.
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister said Boris Johnson “will respond to Marcus Rashford’s letter as soon as he can”, adding the footballer “has been using his profile in a positive way to highlight some important issues”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer tweeted: “This is such an important and moving letter. Thank you, Marcus, for all the work you are doing to support children during the coronavirus crisis.”