More than 200 children’s writers have urged the government to ensure no child goes hungry this winter as the row over free school meals continues.
Children’s laureate Cressida Cowell, David Baddiel and Frank Cottrell Boyce are among those to have signed a letter calling for “official” financial help.
Some councils are to pay for lunch vouchers next week after MPs rejected extending free provision to half-term.
Ministers say the school meal policy will be kept under review.
On Wednesday, MPs voted against a Labour call to make free school meals available outside term time for the next six months, including over the Christmas and Easter holidays.
But footballer Marcus Rashford, who forced a government U-turn on free school meal vouchers for eligible pupils over the summer holidays, is keeping pressure on the government to go further.
Speaking during a visit to a food bank in Manchester, he said he didn’t mind the criticism he was receiving from some MPs for highlighting the issue of food poverty as long as it brought changes.
Councils pledging action
Several local authorities have decided to take action themselves.
Liverpool Council says it will pay for the daily lunches of 19,800 children in the city during the half-term break, beginning on Monday, as have Redbridge, Hammersmith and Southwark councils in London.
And Greater Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham is offering 1,000 vouchers for children across the region to spend on meals in Co-op stores during half term.
A number of restaurants and cafes across the country have also signalled they will offer free meals to parents in need over the coming week, expressing their support on Mr Rashford’s Twitter feed.
A group of prominent children’s authors and illustrators have also intervened in the debate.
Authors on ‘basic human decency’
Their open letter states that “no child in this nation should go hungry this winter” because of the “unique position children and their families have been placed in because of this pandemic”.
It adds: “We believe children should not have to depend on pot luck charity, and there should be official, organised, government support across the nation to ensure no child experiences the insecurity of hunger as well as the stress of the pandemic.”
Anne Booth, who helped co-ordinate the letter, told the BBC that it was “just denying reality” to suggest that some children were not falling through the cracks.
She said she didn’t want her letter to become party political but it was “just basic human decency” that children were fed as they were unable to thrive otherwise.
Rashford ‘doesn’t mind criticism’
Government ministers have praised Mr Rashford for highlighting the difficulties facing low-income families, but some Conservative MPs have accused him of “virtue signalling”.
The footballer, who received free school meals as a youngster growing up in Manchester said it would not deter him from speaking out.
“I’ll take that all day long as long as we start to see improvements going forward for the people that are in need of it now,” he told BBC Breakfast. “That’s what is important to me.”
He suggested the tone of some of the comments in Wednesday’s debate had been “insensitive” and had come from people who “have definitely not been through it themselves”.
“People have opinions. Whether they understood fully what families are going through is another conversation.”
Treasury Minister Steve Barclay said all measures would be kept under review but emphasised the extra £9bn in support available through the welfare system.
“It’s important we support families in need,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.
“In the design and the measures we’ve taken for example on housing support, lifting the allowance at the lowest in terms of rents to cover a much wider range of housing benefits, that again is about supporting families through the welfare system.”
Who is eligible for free school meals?
Children of all ages living in households on income-related benefits may be eligible for free school meals.
In England, about 1.3 million children claimed for free school meals in 2019 – about 15% of state-educated pupils.
Analysis by the Food Foundation estimates a further 900,000 children in England may have sought free school meals since the start of the pandemic.
In Scotland, the government has made £10m available to local councils to continue to fund free school meals over the Christmas, February and Easter breaks. Local authorities that offered provision over the October school break can apply to be reimbursed.
The Welsh government has also pledged to extend free school meal provision to every school holiday until Easter 2021, spending £11m on doing so.
In England and Northern Ireland, however, the scheme will only run during term time.