Like Marcus Rashford, growing up on Free School Meals put a fire in my belly to campaign for a better system for our children today.
I remember all too well the stigma of being a “Free School Meal kid”; you can’t hide the fact you’re on free school meals when you have to stand in a separate queue to your friends.
While many schools have taken steps in recent years to remove this stigma, ask any school pupil now if they know which of their friends receives free school meals and they will be able to tell you.
That is why, since I became an MP in 2005, I campaigned for Universal Free School Meals and set up the All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Food in 2010.
I believe every child, regardless of where they live or what their parents earn, has the right to a hot and healthy meal. Universality removes the stigma that stays with you through to adulthood and becomes a leveller for children growing up in poverty; having food in your tummy means that you’re ready to learn and have another reason to go to school.
But it isn’t just during term time that children need this support.
The school holidays are an expensive time for parents – the cost of days out, holidays and extra food all add up. But for some families what should be an exciting time is filled with dread and worry.
Some charities, Local Authorities and MPs, most notably Carolyn Harris MP, provide holiday activity provision to keep children fed and active during the holidays to help tackle this issue. But due to Coronavirus, these provisions are severely limited this year.
The Prime Minister said during PMQs last week, “we do not normally continue with free school meals over the summer holidays”. We are not in normal times. With families on furlough, not knowing if their job will still exist when the scheme comes to an end, or waiting for Universal Credit payments to come through there is a need for further support for families.
The Department of Education says that in light of Coronavirus, they have “temporarily extended the eligibility criteria for free school meals to support families with no recourse to public funds (NRPF).” But this extension only covers approximately 10,000 out of the estimated 215,000 NRPF children growing up in the UK.Similarly, the Government’s £9 million Holiday Activities and Food programme will run for the third summer this year. Last year, it reached 50,000 children, which is a drop in the ocean compared to the 1.3 million children eligible for free school meals. And the Prime Minister’s recent announcement of a £63 million local authority welfare assistance scheme does not go anywhere near far enough when you remember that it will be hard fought for by all vulnerable adults and children, to help fund important local authority services, it’s not just for food.
That is why I am calling on the government to follow the steps of the Welsh government, and extend the National School Voucher Scheme and funding for alternative school food initiatives so that the 1.3 million children eligible for free school meals can be fed during the school holidays. I am also calling for the eligibility criteria to be extended so that all children in families with no recourse to public funds can have access to food or the vouchers.
The eyes of the public are on the Prime Minister and a generation of children and young people are relying upon him to make the right decision on extending free school meals over the summer holidays.
Sharon Hodgson is MP for Washington and Sunderland West and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Food.