Since the government voted not to extend the free school meals voucher scheme last week, the country has been embroiled in an emotive, polarised and often poisonous debate over the subject.
As communities and businesses across the country banded together to feed the nation’s kids, and politicians on both sides busied themselves with mudslinging, there is one perspective in the free school meals saga that has been noticeably absent: that of the families who need them.
About 1.4m children in England were eligible for free school meals in January 2020, and a recent analysis by the Food Foundation estimates a further 900,000 children have sought free school meals since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
With the end of the furlough scheme mere days away, the number of families facing destitution will only rise as will the number of children at risk of hunger and malnutrition. For some, a free school meal could be their only meal of the day.
A domestic abuse survivor and single mother, Joanne* from Yorkshire, says the free school meals her two teenage children qualify are, quite simply, a “godsend”.
Joanne has been signed off work since 2015, after she developed severe mental health issues and agoraphobia following years of abuse and stalking from her ex-partner.
To this day, he continues to exert power and control over her by refusing to pay child maintenance payments – leaving her and her children constantly teetering on the edge of poverty. “If my ex decides he doesn’t fancy paying and I don’t get free school meals, I’ve got nothing,” she told HuffPost UK.
For six weeks during the first lockdown, Joanne’s ex-partner stopped sending her money; he currently owes her £2,000 in child maintenance.
Families like ours are not what we are made out to be.Joanne
Without these payments, she and her 13- and 15-year-old kids had to live on the £180 she receives each week from her Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
“I try my best like everybody, but I’ve got bills to pay,” she tells HuffPost UK. “If they get free school meals, then at least I know that they’ve got a decent meal at school.”
Among the MPs who voted against the motion put forward by Labour in the House of Commons last week, several pointed to the Universal Credit (UC) system as a means to justify withholding cash for food during the holidays.
But many people – including Joanne – are still on the old-style benefits system and will likely not qualify until 2024.
Joanne was “absolutely fuming” when she first heard the government’s decision not to extend the free school meals scheme into this week’s half-term holidays and Christmas period. “They’re just lying. They say everybody’s on Universal Credit but I don’t get that extra £20 a week.”
Without that extra money and with the perpetual instability wielded by her ex-husband, Joanne lives each day with financial uncertainty. When the subject of chancellor Rishi Sunak’s £500m Eat Out To Help Out initiative came up, Joanne’s only response was: “They’re literally starving us.” She hasn’t eaten out in a restaurant in seven years.
She says the political narrative surrounding free school meals has been “shocking” and “harmful”. “The lies that they tell really, really hurts. Can you imagine being told you’re a degenerate or you’re a druggie because you claim free school meals?
“Families like ours are not what we are made out to be. They’re blaming us for not being able to budget but it’s their systems and their policies that are driving us into poverty.
“They’re treating us with utter contempt. It hurts to think there are people in power who can really change your life. They can cast you aside and blame you, make you feel unimportant. It’s just wrong.”
Few politicians have spoken with as much contempt for their own constituents of late as Ben Bradley, Tory MP for Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. In a now-deleted tweet, Bradley claimed free school meal vouchers for the children in his seat “effectively” went to crack dens and brothels.
Eight-year-old Esme Matthews is one of Bradley’s constituents and a pupil of St Edmund’s C of E Primary and Nursery School, whose headteacher responded to the MP with a full-throated defence of the community: “We know the truth about families who qualify for free school meals and it is nothing like what he suggests.”
Back in March, when the country was first plunged into a national lockdown and she was no longer able to go into school, Esme did not require free school meal vouchers. Her father, Steve, 55, moved into her and her mother’s house after he was furloughed in order to help with childcare and homeschooling.
But as the months went by, Steve’s savings began to dwindle and his work as a self-employed handyman completely dried up – he is now £1,500 in debt. During the summer holidays, free school meals made a “massive difference” to Esme and her family.
“Before that, I was going three, four days without food in a week,” Steve told HuffPost UK. “The vouchers gave us a little leeway. It meant we could all sit down to a family meal. Marcus Rashford is a saint.”
Steve describes his local MP as an “absolute nutter”. “I was very hurt [by his comments]. Esme doesn’t live in a brothel and she doesn’t live in a crack house. He’s supposed to represent the people of Mansfield! He doesn’t represent anyone.
“The government has got to wake up. We’ve got families that are starving, children growing up on one meal a day, but the politicians don’t seem to care.”
Fellow Mansfield resident and single mother of three, Anna Street, is similarly furious at her MP. “It was totally out of order. There are some people who sponge off the benefits when they don’t need to, but he was basically tarring everybody in that situation with the same brush.”
Her youngest, five-year-old Izabella, relies on free school meals while Anna works part-time in a convenience store, which has stayed open throughout the pandemic.
To top up her £340 monthly salary, Anna receives Universal Credit which “just about” covers her bills and basic necessities, but money is tight and she is worried about being able to afford the rise in local council tax.
“You’re getting more money in one way, but they’re taking it off you in other ways, so you’re not really doing any better,” she says.
She was extremely disappointed by the decision not to extend free school meals into the half-term and Christmas holidays. “I was gutted because they do help a lot, especially when they’re at home.”
For many families in Britain, the free school meals Marcus Rashford successfully fought for that fed two-million-plus children over the six-month summer holiday period really did mean a lot.
“I was able to buy more fresh produce such as fruit and vegetables so they ate more healthily,” says Gemma*, 39, a single mother of two from Manchester.
A former primary school teaching assistant, Gemma says free school meals have been a “lifesaver” for her family while she finishes her degree at a local university centre.
“Not having to fork out the extra money for food helped me concentrate my budget elsewhere. For example, my daughter needed a new mattress and the vouchers allowed me to buy that – otherwise I would have had to ask friends and family for help.”
As the temperature drops and the nation heads into ever stricter lockdowns, Gemma worries not having free school meals over the Christmas holidays will leave her with little to no money for food or heating.
“Not receiving it means I must try to stick to budgeting, which is difficult at this time of the year. Vouchers would help – there would be less worry about keeping the heating on because you have to concentrate your money elsewhere.
“I’ll have to make sacrifices with the food I buy – it means less fresh produce. My children understand there are many things I cannot afford to buy, or why we can’t have treats like eating out or a family holiday.”
She has also found the comments of some Tory MPs during this debate “disgusting and despicable”. “How many of them have actually experienced poverty?
“Providing free school meals should be a priority, not a burden. If you want to increase social mobility, empower families by showing us it’s OK to claim free school meals.
“This is not going to eradicate poverty, but it could be a step in the right direction.”