When Marcus Rashford walks out onto the pitch donning the white shirt of England’s international football team, we see a star footballer, who is representing his country as one of the best in the world. What we don’t see, however, is the young boy who received free school meals as a child, whilst his mother struggled to make ends meet. Like Rashford, this is the harsh reality for many families in the UK, as 1.3 million children claimed free school meals in 2019. The government’s Free School Meal scheme allows children from low-income families to receive free meals during their education, right from nursery age.
Lockdown school closures could have resulted in the termination of free school meals, leaving many children, some of whom are dependent upon these meals as their only meal of the day, going hungry. Thankfully, the government stepped up and introduced the national voucher scheme, which meant that throughout term time, Easter and May half-term holidays, schools were expected to continue to support children eligible for free school meals. However, that was where the support was going to end. On Thursday 4 June 2020, the government announced that the scheme would not continue throughout the summer holidays, despite unemployment rates surging over 1.35 million in three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving families more in need of help than ever before.
Rashford, who has been in partnership with FareShare, a charity which distributes food provisions to almost 1 million people each week, called out the government on this decision. He drew upon his own experiences as a young child and wrote an open letter to MPs on Monday 15 June 2020 that encouraged the government to rethink and #MakeTheUTurn. This hashtag was soon trending on Twitter in the UK and his letter received over 161,000 retweets. Whilst discussing the necessity of free school meals, Rashford called out a capitalist system that has the interests of the wealthy at its forefront: “the system that isn’t built for families like [his] to succeed.” His family is one of many working-class households within the UK that often struggle to provide basic necessities for their children. I am from the post-industrial northern town Barnsley, which has the third highest rate for child poverty with over 32,000 children in receipt of Tax Credits in 2016, so I saw for myself how important schemes such as these are. The COVID-19 outbreak may be the current health crisis that the world is facing, but the importance of supporting families, especially in this uncertain economic period, will never diminish. It is the “pandemic that will last generations” as Rashford so aptly put it.
In response to Rashford’s statement and the overall support he was given on Twitter, the government took back their original plans, making the U-turn he called for. Boris Johnson commended Rashford for his “contribution to the debate around poverty” and the Department of Education announced the COVID Summer Food Fund. This initiative provides families with £90 to spend on food at most of the UK’s larger supermarket chains for the six-week summer holiday. Even though this should have been the route the government took in the first place, the U-turn was met with open arms by the households that are fighting every day just to put food on the table.
However, this U-Turn also cultivated the ethos that footballers should positively contribute to social issues. By opening up a debate surrounding the government’s support of disadvantaged communities within the UK, Rashford has shown how important it is for people in the public eye to use their platform to the advantage of society as a whole. Rather than coming forward as a celebrity, Rashford came forward as a voice for the people, representing the country off the pitch as well as on it. Football and footballers have often been criticised, for the performative elements of the game and concerns about how much they are paid. Yet, Rashford has given the industry a breath of humanity and humility and opened up the floor for footballers and celebrities alike to use their platform for social change – to get the ball rolling (pardon the pun).
Rashford’s Tweet: “Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020”, sums up the power of a collective voice. Celebrity voices have the biggest audience to enable these conversations, but it is only when people come together that they become loud enough for change to happen.
With Rashford’s initiative, hopefully there will be less children in the UK with rumbling stomachs this summer.
– Amie Greenhalgh