Footballer Marcus Rashford has formed a taskforce with some of the UK’s biggest food brands to try to help reduce child food poverty.
The 22-year-old Manchester United forward successfully campaigned to extend free school meals this summer.
He has written to MPs, outlining the help he feels some families still need.
They include expanding the numbers who are eligible for free school meals – and offer them free food and activities during school holidays in England.
Mr Rashford has spoken about his own experiences of using a food voucher scheme as a child and was praised for pressing the government into a U-turn on the issue.
The group of supermarkets, businesses and charities – including Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Deliveroo, FareShare, Food Foundation, Iceland, Kellogg’s, Lidl, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose – have formed a taskforce and backed proposals from the National Food Strategy, an independent review of UK food policy.
The taskforce is calling for three policy recommendations by the National Food Strategy to be funded by the government as soon as possible:
- Expanding free school meals to every child from a household on Universal Credit or equivalent, reaching an additional 1.5m children aged seven to 16
- Expanding an existing school holiday food and activities programme to support all children on free school meals in all areas of England. instead of the current 50,000 children that are helped
- Increasing the value of the Healthy Start vouchers – which help parents with children under the age of four and pregnant women buy some basic foods – from £3.10 to £4.25 per week, and expanding it to all those on Universal Credit or equivalent, reaching an additional 290,000 people
The taskforce says implementing the three recommendations would mark a “unifying step to identifying a long-term solution to child poverty in the UK”.
‘An absolute godsend’
Tara Brown, 50, receives Universal Credit and disability allowance for her nine-year-old son, who has autism.
She says the voucher scheme has been “brilliant” because he eats what she calls a restrictive diet – so prefers consistent packed lunches to free cooked meals at his school in Essex.
“It’s been nice to be able to get it so that I know it’s not eating into my weekly food budget that I put aside for our evening meals,” she says.
She wants to see vouchers become a permanent option for parents.
“I think it should be down to parental choice as to whether the money goes direct to the school or if the money goes via a voucher [for packed lunches] to the parents,” she adds.
“For people that are, financially, in a much worse situation, who have children with this sort of avoidance of foods, then the voucher scheme has probably been an absolute godsend to them.”
Mr Rashford said he was “confident” the group could help change lives “for the better”.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he said the move to extend free school meals over the summer had been a “short-term solution” to stopping children from going hungry, but it “wasn’t going to work in the long run”.
“We had to think about the best way to do it, to think about how these families can eat long term and not have any issues,” he said.
Mr Rashford is hoping that, with a bigger team of experts around him, he might be able to help more children.
“We wanted to do it the best way we could, introduce the best people into our group, and see if using them [we] can push it even more.”
What is child food poverty and how many does it affect?
By Reality Check
- The Department of Health defines food poverty, also referred to as food insecurity, as the inability to afford, or have access to food to make up a healthy diet.
- Last year, the government announced that it would start measuring food insecurity through its Family Resources Survey and that data would be available from 2021.
- Earlier this year, a YouGov poll commissioned by the Food Foundation suggested that 2.4 million (17%) children are living in food-insecure households..
- Poor nutrition is acknowledged to be a factor in children’s performance at school and pupils whose parents receive certain benefits are eligible for Free School Meals.
- In England, around 1.3 million children claimed Free School Meals in 2019 – about 15% of state-educated pupils.
In his letter to MPs, Mr Rashford says he hopes the chancellor will find the funds to do so in his Budget and spending review “without delay”.
Schools minister Nick Gibb said he would be delighted to meet Mr Rashford, saying the footballer was “right to draw the nation’s attention” to the matter.
He told BBC Breakfast the government shared Mr Rashford’s objective to alleviate child food poverty and would look at the policy recommendations.
The first report of the National Food Strategy, which was commissioned by the government in 2019, aims to help create a food system in the UK that is healthy, affordable and sustainable.
Food entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby, who is leading the National Food Strategy review, has said school meals are a “fantastic way” to get children eating well at school.
“The alternative to a school lunch is a packed lunch and only 1% of packed lunches have the nutritional value of a school meal,” he said.
“If you look at packed lunches as children get less affluent, those packed lunches have increasingly low nutritional value.”
Speaking on Breakfast, he said nutrition was the basis of equality of opportunity – “you can’t level up if you are not getting enough nutrition into your most vulnerable children”.
He added that the status of food, dining halls and particularly school cooks needed to be raised, saying they were “as important as any teacher”.
Members of the taskforce have also pledged to spend the next six weeks using their platforms to share stories of those affected by child food insecurity in the UK.
Richard Walker, Iceland’s managing director, said it was an issue they cared about deeply and wanted to support Mr Rashford to effect positive change.
Career highlights: The rise and rise of Rashford
- Came through the ranks at Manchester United, having grown up in the city and joined the club at the age of seven
- At the age of 18, he was named as a sub for a Europa League tie against Midtjylland, but was drafted into the starting line-up when Anthony Martial was injured in the warm-up
- He went on to score two goals in that match, breaking George Best’s record as Manchester United’s youngest ever scorer in European competition
- That immediate impact meant he made his Premier League debut against Arsenal three days later
- He has now scored 67 goals in 214 matches for the club
- He scored three minutes into his England debut against Australia
- He played for England at both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, where he converted a penalty in the famous shoot-out win over Colombia
- At the age of 22, he now has 38 England caps (more than World Cup winners George Cohen, Jack Charlton, Roger Hunt and Nobby Stiles) and has scored 10 international goals
Mr Rashford has stressed the importance of tackling the stigma around child food poverty, and changing attitudes about asking for help.
He told the BBC: “I feel like at times people think they are being looked down on if they ask for help, and I think in this generation… that is something that should change.
“You should feel free if you want to ask for help for anything,” he said. “Hold your head up high and if you need help go and get help.”
The footballer has met some of the families who have benefitted from the extended children’s food voucher scheme, which he said had been an “unbelievable experience”.
“Just to see the smiles on their faces and to see how much it’s helped them, you know, made me happy,” he said. “It was good to see the parents laughing and smiling.”
During the coronavirus lockdown the government provided vouchers to families whose children qualify for free meals, but it had insisted this would not continue into the summer holidays.
This prompted the England footballer to write an open letter to MPs, drawing on his own experiences of relying on free school meals and food banks growing up in Wythenshawe, Manchester. He called on the government to reverse its decision – which it did shortly after he spoke out.
The U-turn enabled about 1.3m children in England to claim vouchers over the holidays, with the support working out as about £15 a week for each child.
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