Who would you expect to drive policy and public opinion when it comes to child hunger and poverty? A government, whose job it is to protect and care for its citizens, or a professional football player, whose job it is to score goals?
In Britain, the answer is the professional footballer. “Marcus: The Pride of Britain” the Mirror’s front page read Monday, revealing the footballer Marcus Rashford had been given one of their “Pride of Britain” awards.
Rashford, a forward for Premier League club Manchester United and the England national team, has led a hugely successful campaign, starting last spring, to ensure children no longer receiving free school meals during the pandemic are fed. His inspirational activism has, in the past, forced the government to act. Now the government insists it will not be moved again; they say they will not fund the meals that 1.3 million children—thought to be closer to 2 million during the pandemic—rely on. Rashford knows their situations all too well—as a child, he was one of them.
The footballer initially partnered with the charity FareShare to feed 400,000 children in the Greater Manchester area; that campaign’s success soon translated to a national campaign reaching an estimated four million children and galvanized a surge in donations, fundraising, and community activism. Earlier this month the Queen made Rashford an MBE (Member of the British Empire) in recognition of his work.
“Food poverty in England is a pandemic that could span generations if we don’t course correct now,” Rashford wrote in an open letter to the government in June. “Whilst 1.3 million children in England are registered for free school meals, one quarter of these children have not been given any support since the school closures were ordered.”
The day after the letter was published, the government announced it was extending the provision of free school meals for children through the summer holidays. A subsequent petition Rashford started to extend the scheme through to next Easter (including the October half-term holiday) garnered enough signatures to force Parliament to debate—and vote—on the issue. But the proposal was defeated, 322 votes to 261, in Parliament last week.
“Put aside all the noise, the digs, the party politics, and let’s focus on the reality,” Rashford tweeted afterward. “A significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today,” Rashford wrote, adding, “We must stop stigmatizing, judging and pointing fingers. Our views are being clouded by political affiliation. This is not politics, this is humanity…
“I don’t have the education of a politician, many on Twitter have made that clear today, but I have a social education having lived through this and having spent time with the families and children most affected. These children matter.” He said he wanted to sit down with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and politicians to formulate solutions.
There is now widespread anger, and a rebellion within the government’s own ranks, over the vote and how it brutally confirms the historic perception that the Tories are the “nasty” party, never happier than when overseeing cuts in services and support to those who need it most. In their defense, Johnson’s government say they have expanded free school meal provision, increased welfare support by 9.3 billion pounds ($12.1 billion), and made 63 million pounds ($82 million) available to councils for families facing financial difficulties.
Johnson has said, “I totally understand the issue of holiday hunger; it is there, we have to deal with it. The debate is how do you deal with it.” He has also hailed Rashford’s work as “terrific.” His ministers claim it is not the government’s job to feed in-need children during the school holidays. The more they say it, the crueler they sound.
In June, when Rashford issued his open letter to the government, he made clear how personal the mission was.
“My story to get here is all-too-familiar for families in England: my mum worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table. But it was not enough. The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked,” Rashford wrote.
“As a family, we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of neighbors and coaches. Food banks and soup kitchens were not alien to us; I recall very clearly our visits to Northern Moor to collect our Christmas dinners every year. It’s only now that I really understand the enormous sacrifice my mum made in sending me away to live in digs aged 11, a decision no mother would ever make lightly.”
He continued: “As a black man from a low-income family in Wythenshawe, Manchester, I could have been just another statistic. Instead, due to the selfless actions of my mum, my family, my neighbors, and my coaches, the only stats I’m associated with are goals, appearances and caps. I would be doing myself, my family and my community an injustice if I didn’t stand here today with my voice and my platform and ask you for help.”
Rashford has said that Johnson didn’t respond to a personal letter sent in September, so perhaps expect a staged public meeting to take place in a matter of days. However, it is highly unlikely that Rashford will allow himself to be used for a cheap political stunt. He has already denied that, contrary to some Tory suggestions, Johnson has been in touch with him.
Rashford appears impervious to Tory political power-play. In his open letter, he responded to one MP who had told him, patronizingly, that there was a benefits system to deal with food poverty.
“Rest assured, I am fully aware of the Universal Credit scheme and I am fully aware that the majority of families applying are experiencing five-week delays,” Rashford said. “Universal Credit is simply not a short-term solution. I also know from talking to people that there is a two-child-per-family limit, meaning someone like my mum would only have been able to cover the cost of two of her five children.”
“This is not about politics; this is about humanity,” Rashford wrote in June. “Looking at ourselves in the mirror and feeling like we did everything we could to protect those who can’t, for whatever reason or circumstance, protect themselves. Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?”
Rashford has the government on the back foot. Political observers in the U.K. say it is a matter of time before the government does a U-turn on the issue (for a second time). The more disturbing question is why it has taken a footballer to spur a nation's government to act on such a critical social issue.