London (AFP) – England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford stepped up his campaign Tuesday for the government to extend free school meals for the poorest children, drawing widespread support amid concerns about families struggling during the coronavirus lockdown.
Rashford used an article in The Times newspaper to plead with Prime Minister Boris Johnson to extend the programme through the summer holidays, which begin in late July.
The 22-year-old forward benefited from free school meals himself growing up in Manchester, and said an extension would have a huge impact on the lives of the 1.3 million children currently eligible.
“Ten years ago I was one of them. I know what it feels like to be hungry,” he wrote, describing how friends would invite him over just so their parents could be sure that he had eaten that evening.
Rashford has already helped raise around £20 million ($25 million) for FareShare, a charity that fights hunger and food waste.
“I recognise that I have a valuable platform that allows my voice to be heard and I’m asking you to listen to the stories of these vulnerable families,” he wrote.
“People are hurting and we continue to ignore their cries for help.”
The article follows an open letter Rashford wrote to MPs, which has drawn huge support from across the political spectrum — including from inside Johnson’s Conservative party.
The main opposition Labour party has called a debate in the House of Commons later Tuesday, but the prime minister so far has refused to give in.
The government points to the huge package of support unveiled when the economy came to a shuddering halt with the coronavirus lockdown, including paying the salaries of 8.7 million people in a furlough scheme and targeted funds for the most vulnerable.
When Britain’s schools were shut in March, pupils eligible for free meals were offered vouchers instead.
Welfare minister Therese Coffey said she and Rashford “are working to the same aim.
“I and this government will continue to actively help and support families and businesses through this emergency and beyond,” she said in a tweet.
However, she drew criticism for her initial response to Rashford’s article, which was to refute a claim he made that families might have their water cut off if they could not pay.
Conservative MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education committee, noted that other forms of government support were more complicated to access than free school meals.
Extending the programme into the summer “would be the right thing to do”, he told BBC television.
Labour’s education spokeswoman, Rebecca Long Bailey, said Rashford was “one of the best of us”.
“It would be deeply callous of the government not to take this small step to ease the financial pressure on households and ensure children can eat during the summer holidays,” she said.