There is no doubt that Marcus Rashford is a hero. A 22-year-old playing professional football for his country, after growing up in child poverty is an incredible story.
And, despite the ad hominem attacks by Tory MPs in Parliament – accusing Rashford of being a celebrity merely “virtue-signalling” – he has kept his head held high, expertly highlighting the humanity deficit in British politics by rising above their attempts to politicise poor children.
Indeed, I myself grew up in child poverty on a council estate in Birmingham, and relied on free school meals at various points during my childhood to get by, so I know, first-hand, how vital they are.
That’s why the necessity of Rashford’s campaign horrifies me. That a footballer has to lead a campaign to feed hungry children because his government refuses to, that struggling businesses are stepping in to give what little they have to help our nation’s kids, is not and must not be seen as a victory for humanity – it’s a tragedy.
We are currently facing the biggest global recession in history. Businesses up and down the country are struggling to weather the storm, and millions find themselves completely left out by the government’s economic support.
And it is now these businesses that are having to step in to provide food for starving children with what little they have left.
We’re also seeing underfunded local councils and authorities stepping forward such as Manchester and Birmingham – Rashford and I’s cities respectively – to try and help.
These are areas that have publicly, and, at times, explosively, stated that they need more financial support than the government is offering to prevent a spike in poverty during the pandemic. Because, like Covid-19, child poverty in the UK is a national crisis.
At present, 4.2 million children live in relative poverty in the UK – with 2.4 million in absolute poverty. It is becoming such an issue that the UN described it as “systemic and tragic” in 2019 – and that was before the economic crisis we’re in now.
The government was failing our nation’s children even before the pandemic hit. But now they have compounded their moral bankruptcy by choosing to continue to ignore them.
These children cannot vote, do not have a platform, and cannot speak for themselves. Indeed, it is this that led Rashford to say: “For as long as they don’t have a voice, they will have mine.”
So, when I see Rashford tweeting constantly over the course of the last 24 hours with various places across the country that are offering to feed children, I can’t help but feel despair that this is happening in the sixth wealthiest nation in the world.
“So, while I support Rashford’s campaign, and all those sacrificing what little they have to help children, I also despair at its necessity.”
How is it that a 22-year-old footballer has more humanity than the House of Commons? And my despair is deepened by the rhetoric coming out of the government during this bleak and desperate time.
Conservatives presented arguments against feeding children in the run up to the vote on free school meals, saying they can’t “nationalise children”, “create dependencies”, “wreck” the economy, or “take responsibility from parents”.
Not only are these statements disingenuous, barefaced lies, they completely overlook the fact that 72% of children living in poverty are in working households. And have they forgotten that the state has a responsibility to ensure there is food for children, as outlined under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
But things don’t have to be this way – despite what the government says.
Scotland this year announced its intention to enshrine the convention in Scots law, which would make it illegal for the government to stand idly by in the face of child food poverty.
Nicola Sturgeon has announced that children will continue to be fed over the holidays, as well as the policy of parents being provided with £10 food vouchers per child.
“Let’s be clear: Rashford’s campaign is an emergency measure to prevent a catastrophe of the government’s making.”
Unlike the Conservative government, the Scottish Parliament show how the rights of children should not be an ideological game or political football; these are children’s lives, and futures.
Statistics show that children in food poverty have worse outcomes; from malnutrition, to the ability to concentrate in the classroom, food insecurity has serious long-term social, economic, and health consequences. And, as Rashford says, child food poverty “is never the child’s fault”.
So, while I support Rashford’s campaign, and all those sacrificing what little they have to help children, I also despair at its necessity.
We must make sure the government do not see the kindness of the British public as an opportunity to continue their shameless and wanton negligence of their responsibilities to the nation’s children.
Because, let’s be clear: Rashford’s campaign is an emergency measure to prevent a catastrophe of the government’s making.
The enduring, structural change we need can only come from the top – from a government that puts the lives of children before their ideologically toxic and morally bankrupt approach to child food poverty.
Nadine Batchelor Hunt is a freelance journalist.
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