Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford has joined charities in celebrating a Government U-turn on providing free meals to disadvantaged children during the Christmas holidays.
The Manchester United striker revealed that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had personally phoned him following his team’s 3-1 victory over Everton at Goodison Park on Saturday 7thNovember to tell him about the decision to provide an extra £170 million of funding for the measure.
The funds will pay for the Covid Winter Grant Scheme to support children, families and the most vulnerable over winter, while the Holiday Activities and Food programme will be extended to cover the Easter, summer and Christmas holidays in 2021, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has announced.
Rashford welcomed the move, noting that it “will improve the lives of near 1.7 million children in the UK over the next 12 months”.
He praised those who joined together in an effort to support the cause, including local businesses, charity workers, volunteers, teachers, social workers, carers and key workers.
“Together we have demonstrated the power of kindness and compassion,” he said. “We have shown that when it comes down to the wire, we will always have each other. Seeing the role everyone has played in supporting our most vulnerable children has been the greatest moment of my life.”
The England international said he has been “overwhelmed by the outpouring of empathy and understanding” and pledged that he is “fully committed” to the cause.
“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 said. “I don’t want any child to go through what I went through, and any parent to experience what my mother experienced. I now call on the Government to collaborate with the Child Food Poverty Taskforce to guarantee that no child does.
“As a collective we are so powerful and we all have a role to play in this, whether it be volunteering, donating, or as simple as a kind word. Today, I’m overwhelmed with pride that we have made such significant progress. ‘We’ will not give up on our children. ‘We’ will not give up on the future of this country. I’m going to bed thankful tonight but under no illusion that there is still a lot more work to be done.”
Rashford said his “immediate concern” is the approximate 1.7 million children who miss out on Free School Meals, holiday provision and Healthy Start vouchers because their family income isn’t quite low enough. However, he added that the intent the Government has shown “is nothing but positive and they should be recognised for that”.
Lindsay Boswell, CEO of FareShare, the UK’s largest charity fighting hunger and food waste, said: “The extra funding for local authorities is welcome news”.
However, she added: “The reality is that many families and individuals inevitably fall through cracks in the system. And FareShare’s work to provide over two million meals for vulnerable people each week will go on.”
Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest network of foodbanks, said the Government’s move to build on steps already taken to help prevent more people being locked into poverty this winter was “encouraging”.
“The extension in funding for local councils in England is particularly welcome. Our latest research shows local welfare support can be an effective way of preventing someone hit by an emergency from being plunged into a longer-term crisis,” she said.
“We know support from local authorities can make a real difference when someone is hit by the unexpected – but it must work in coordination with a national social security system strong enough to act as a lifeline to any of us struggling to afford the essentials. That’s why it’s crucial that alongside this package, the government commits to locking in the £20 weekly increase to Universal Credit and makes sure that people currently excluded because their payments come through the old welfare system get this vital boost too.”
Ms Revie added: “This year has shown the unexpected can hit us suddenly, with devastating consequences for people’s lives. But it’s also shown we can make huge changes to the way we live and look after each other. It’s shown that when we come together to push for change, united by our desire for justice and compassion, the government responds. It’s not right that anyone needs to use a food bank, at any time of year, but changes like this show that together, we can build a hunger free future.”
The Covid Winter Grant Scheme will be run by councils in England and the funding will be ring-fenced, with at least 80 per cent earmarked to support with food and bills. It will cover the period to the end of March 2021. Local Authorities will receive the funding at the beginning of December 2020.
It will allow councils to directly help the hardest-hit families and individuals, as well as provide food for children who need it over the holidays. The Government said local councils understand which groups need support and are best placed to ensure appropriate holiday support is provided, which is why they will distribute the funds, rather than schools, who will continue providing meals for disadvantaged children during term-time.
The Holiday Activities and Food programme, which has provided healthy food and enriching activities to disadvantaged children since 2018, will also be expanded across England next year.
It will cover Easter, summer and Christmas in 2021, and cost up to £220m. It will be available to children in every local authority in England, building on previous programmes, including this summer’s, which supported around 50,000 children across 17 local authorities.
Healthy Start scheme payments are also set to increase from £3.10 to £4.25 a week from April 2021.
This scheme supports pregnant women or those with children under four who have a low income and are in receipt of benefits to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. This will help people boost the long-term health of their children.
The Government has also pledged additional funding of £16m for food distribution charities, with conversations with FareShare and others ongoing as to how this is allocated.
Work and Pensions Secretary, Thérèse Coffey, said: “We want to make sure vulnerable people feel cared for throughout this difficult time and, above all, no-one should go hungry or be unable to pay their bills this winter.
“We know this has been a challenging time for many, and we have consistently supported the lowest-paid families, protecting 9 million jobs with furlough and boosting welfare support by £9.3 billion.
“This package builds on that support, and by extending our successful Holiday Activities and Food programme, as well as funding a £170 million Covid Winter Grant Scheme, we are making sure families get the help they need.”
Picture: Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford.