UK government relents, finally backs free meals initiative pushed by Rashford

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The UK government now says it will provide free meals to disadvantaged children during the upcoming holidays following a hugely popular child hunger campaign by Manchester United star Marcus Rashford.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson phoned the 23-year-old striker after his team's Premier League victory over Everton to inform him of the government's decision to spend 170 million pounds in extra funding to support needy families over the coming year.

"Following the game today, I had a good conversation with the Prime Minister to better understand the proposed plan, and I very much welcome the steps that have been taken to combat child food poverty in the UK," Rashford said. "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."

Rashford's petition demanding the Conservative government pay for free school meals for disadvantaged students over the holidays garnered more than 1 million signatures. He has eloquently spoken about his own childhood experiences of relying on free school lunches and food banks.

The money will be given to local authorities by December in time to support families over Christmas, many of whom are facing financial difficulties due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"This is a big win for disadvantaged children," said Anna Taylor, executive director of Food Foundation. "A win for all those brave parents and children who have spoken up about their experiences of food poverty. And a win for the 1.1 million individuals across the country who showed how much they cared by signing Marcus Rashford’s petition.

"Today’s announcement shows the government is serious about tackling children’s food poverty - funding programmes worth more than £400m that will improve the lives of more than 1.7 million children over the next 12 months. But we must keep in mind that a similar number of disadvantaged children will continue to miss out on the benefits of free school meals and healthy start because the qualifying income criteria are currently set far too low."

It's the second time this year that Rashford has forced the government to change its policies. In June, it agreed to keep funding meals for poor students over the summer holidays after initially resisting.

The new money will pay for the COVID Winter Grant Scheme to support families over Christmas while the Holiday Activities and Food program will be extended to cover the Easter, summer and Christmas breaks in 2021. As part of the package, Healthy Start payments, which help expectant mothers and those on low incomes with young children buy fresh fruit and vegetables, are to rise from 3.10 pounds to 4.25 pounds a week beginning in April 2021.

“This is a big step in the right direction,"  said Dame Emma Thompson, Children’s Right2Food Ambassador. "Huge credit should go to all those who have talked openly about their experiences of food poverty, including the young food ambassadors who have bravely told their stories. The campaign to ensure children’s right to food must continue until we #endchildfoodpoverty.”

Dev Sharma, the 15-year-old Young Food Ambassador from Leicester who has been at the forefront of the movement, echoed those thoughts.

"I am so glad that the Government has shown it is listening to young people and wants to help those of us affected by food poverty," Sharma said. "My fellow young food ambassadors and I have been calling for these changes for some time, and now we know our efforts were worth every second. It is vital that our voices are heard, and that young people are at the centre of these decisions"

The new money comes a month after the Conservative government failed to back a motion from the opposition Labour Party to extend free school meals.

Labour's education spokesperson, Kate Green, accused the government of "incompetence and intransigence" for waiting until after the October fall school break to make the announcement, and of creating "needless and avoidable hardship for families across the country."

Businesses and local governments stepped into the breach following the government's failure to pay for free school meals in October.

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