• England striker Marcus Rashford has convinced the UK government to provide free school meals during the summer holidays.
  • Rashford, who received free meals as a child, said kids would go hungry if the vouchers stopped at the end of term.
  • Children are going hungry around the world as pandemic lockdowns halt economies.
  • Visits to food banks have doubled during the crisis.

On the field, Manchester United and England player Marcus Rashford is an accomplished striker. But he’s just claimed an important off-the-field victory by persuading the UK government to provide free meals for 1.3 million children this summer.

Rashford called on his 2.9 million Twitter followers in a campaign based on his experience of receiving free school meals while growing up in a single-parent family. He said his victory proved what people could do when they came together.

Soccer Football - Premier League - Manchester United v Norwich City - Old Trafford, Manchester, Britain - January 11, 2020  Manchester United's Marcus Rashford scores their second goal from the penalty spot    REUTERS/Jon Super  EDITORIAL USE ONLY. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or
Marcus Rashford wrote an open letter to UK MPs urging them to extend the school meal voucher scheme.
Image: REUTERS/Jon Super

Most children who qualify for free school meals in the UK have been receiving food vouchers while schools have been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the scheme was due to stop over the summer holidays – prompting Rashford to speak out.

With UK companies shedding 600,000 workers between March and May, Rashford’s campaign raised awareness of parents going without food to feed their children.

In an open letter to UK MPs he said: “The government has taken a ‘whatever it takes’ approach to the economy – I’m asking you today to extend that same thinking to protecting all vulnerable children across England.”

Praising his mother’s efforts to feed her family while earning minimum, wage he wrote: “As a family we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals and the kind actions of neighbours and coaches. Food banks and soup kitchens were not alien to us.”

The campaign swiftly bore fruit with the UK government performing a U-turn and agreeing to provide food vouchers throughout the summer break the day after Rashford’s letter was posted on Twitter.

Going hungry

The number of families using food banks in the UK has doubled during the lockdown, according to figures from the Trussell Trust, a charity which runs 1,200 food banks across the country. With UK unemployment hitting 2.8 million in May, the Trust urged more support for the most vulnerable.

UK food charity FareShare says it has been distributing food for an extra 1 million meals a week since the crisis started, and that families and children in need will require 40% more food aid this year because of the impact of the pandemic.

The free school meals summer extension.
The free school meals summer extension.
Image: Statista

Even before the pandemic, the World Food Programme reported that millions of children were going to school hungry around the world and millions more, particularly girls, were missing out on education altogether because they were helping to feed their families.

In New York, the city education department has set up free food hubs for families as campaigners estimate that one in four children could go hungry in the United States this summer due to the economic impact of the pandemic.

France doubled the number of free school breakfasts and $1 meals available in its schools just before the lockdown and in Italy the government has pledged $400 million worth of food vouchers after reports the Mafia was handing out free food to families in need.

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In India, charities have launched COVID-19 emergency food programmes, providing free meals to tens of millions of families whose breadwinners have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

And in Viet Nam, entrepreneur Hoang Tuan Anh has invented a “rice ATM”, which automatically dispenses 1.5 kilogrammes of free rice – enough to feed a family for a day – to those in need. The 24-hour dispensers have been set up in Ho Chi Minh City and three other big cities.