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Marcus Rashford, Emma Thompson and more urge PM to review free school meals

Celebrities teamed up with more than 40 charities and education experts to demand government action on the food system failing pupils
A mural of Marcus Rashford in Manchester. Image credit: Donald Judge/Flickr

A group of celebrities and poverty experts have written a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson demanding action on the free school meals system which has “lurched from one crisis to another”.

Signed by Marcus Rashford, Jamie Oliver, Dame Emma Thompson, Tom Kerridge and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall as well as more than 40 charities and education leaders, the letter urges the Government to investigate the system’s impact on children to feed into the next Spending Review.

Disadvantaged children already disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 should not “continue to bear the brunt” of the pandemic, the letter said.

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How our country’s most needy children are fed should be a top government priority,” Food Foundation executive director Anna Taylor said. 

“School food has lurched from one crisis to another in the last few months. It’s time to help our children recover from the tragedy which this pandemic has inflicted.”

Many of the four million children living in poverty are not entitled to free school meals according to current eligibility criteria, the charity – a signatory of the letter – said.

It estimated 2.3 million children went without the food they needed in 2020. Meanwhile 850,000 of them or their families visited a food bank in the summer holidays.

“School food is essential in supporting the health and learning of our most disadvantaged children,” the letter said.

The collective action follows national outrage after photos of meagre food parcels for children were posted online, and new Department for Education guidance told schools they do not need to distribute free school meals during the half term holiday next month.

The letter asks ministers to reassess the current eligibility thresholds for free meals.

The signatories asked Johnson to publish the results of a comprehensive review before summer, then debate it in Parliament.

He should also consider permanently including children whose families have no recourse to public funds in those eligible for free school meals, they said.

£2.30 per meal per child is not sufficient to ensure no child goes hungry, the letter suggested.

Charities encouraged the Government to take a cash-first approach like that used in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Ministers should also take action to increase wages for low-paid workers.

And strengthening the welfare system will help families afford the food they need, they urged. Cash instead of of emergency handouts would improve “choice and dignity”.

Councils should use the Covid Winter Grant Scheme to ensure all children have food at half term, the DfE said. This is a wide-reaching fund designed to support disadvantaged families through the pandemic.

“Suggesting councils will be able to recreate a new system for the half term week is an unnecessary logistical nightmare.  The chaos this could cause will put millions at risk,” National Education Union joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said.