Britain’s leading food charities have joined education unions, doctors and dentists to call on education secretary Gavin Williamson to guarantee poor children don’t go hungry over Christmas.
In a letter to the cabinet minister, shared with HuffPost UK, groups including FareShare, the Women’s Institute and the Food Foundation said that the government should back footballer Marcus Rashford’s plea to ensure extra support over the festive period and beyond.
Williamson is asked to “commit to funding benefits-related free school meals during the Christmas holiday period and through to Easter 2021, including children from households with no recourse to public funds”.
The letter calls on him to urgently provide funding to councils to allow them to step up and set up emergency food provision in their local communities via grants, food banks or local voucher schemes.
Among the 30 signatories are the National Education Union and Unison, charities Save the Children, School Food Matters and the Children’s Food Campaign, council chiefs and the British Dental Association.
Last month, Boris Johnson faced a huge backlash after he ordered his Tory MPs to vote down a move by Labour to implement Rashford’s plan to extend free school meals for poorer children beyond term time.
Backbench Conservatives sparked further anger by suggesting meal vouchers had been spent on drugs or prostitutes, or that local restaurants and cafes which offered free food over the October half-term didn’t need state support during the Covid restrictions.
Rashford promoted huge numbers of businesses that decided to step in and give free meals over the school break.
The prime minister eventually attempted to quell public anger by pledging that no child would go hungry over Christmas “as a result of any inattention by this government”.
Johnson repeated that formulation when challenged in prime minister’s question time by Labour MP Gareth Thomas on Wednesday, but again provided no details of any plan.
The new letter, sent to both Williamson and his junior minister Vicky Ford, points out that “despite clear evidence of need, families received no support from government during autumn half term”.
“We urge you to commit now in order to provide local authorities and schools with time to plan their provision in consultation with their existing caterers, local partners and eligible families,” it states.
“We cannot rely on civil society to fill the hunger gap as too many children will miss out on the nutrition they need to thrive.”
The letter highlights that more than a million people have now signed the parliamentary petition promoted by Rashford, which urges ministers to implement key recommendations from the independent National Food Strategy.
The measures are expanding access to free school meals, providing meals and activities during holidays to stop holiday hunger and increasing the value of and expanding the Healthy Start scheme for pregnant mothers.
Government insiders have hinted that Johnson is planning a comprehensive package that would mean help being given through the welfare system rather than through free school meal vouchers, but to date no details have been given.
A department for education spokesperson said: “The prime minister has been clear that we do not want to see any children going hungry and the government will support families at this challenging time.
“We have provided free school meals when schools were partially closed, increased welfare support by £9.3bn, and have given councils £63 million for families facing financial difficulties.
“Our Holiday Activities and Food programme has supported disadvantaged children outside the school term over the last three years, including around 50,000 children across 17 local authority areas this summer.”
Future funding plans are likely to be set out in the Treasury’s one-year comprehensive spending review which is due on November 25.
Here is the letter in full:
The Rt Hon Gavin Williamson CBE MP
Secretary of State for Education
The Rt Hon Vicky Ford MP
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families
Further to our letter dated 16 October 2020, we write to you once more regarding the ongoing provision of healthy food to vulnerable children from households experiencing low and unpredictable incomes, including those whose situation has worsened as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 emergency.
On Wednesday 21 October, the motion to continue directly funding provision of free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021 to prevent over a million children going hungry during this crisis was defeated. Even when the national voucher scheme was in place this summer, 18% of 8-17 year olds (1.4 million children) reported experiences of food insecurity during the school holidays, and 11% (850,000 children) reported that either they or their family had visited a food bank.
Despite clear evidence of need, families received no support from government during autumn half term.
The decision by government not to respond to genuine need resulted in an overwhelming show of support from local authorities, community groups, restaurants, schools and parents who stepped in to fill the gap left, to ensure that no children went hungry during half term. Indeed, as we write, over one million people have signed a parliament petition to permanently address child food poverty.
We support the National Food Strategy’s recommendation for funding to be extended to support vulnerable children during school holidays, which we hope will be reflected in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review. But right now, families are facing the grim reality of a two-week Christmas break without access to free school meals and the indignity of having to rely on food banks or face a postcode lottery, dependant on whether community initiatives are available to help feed their children.
We salute the community response over autumn half term but there is a better way to support families; a coordinated approach centred around child welfare.
We recommend that a top-up grant be distributed via local authorities (or directly to schools and academy trusts) to cover the Christmas holiday period and beyond to Easter 2021, if England is to follow the lead of the devolved nations. This grant would be allocated according to free school meal registration and the funds could then be converted into food hampers, supermarket vouchers or cash support payments for families.
Will this Government commit to funding benefits-related free school meals during the Christmas holiday period and through to Easter 2021, including children from households with no recourse to public funds?
We urge you to commit now in order to provide local authorities and schools with time to plan their provision in consultation with their existing caterers, local partners and eligible families. We cannot rely on civil society to fill the hunger gap as too many children will miss out on the nutrition they need to thrive.
Please reply to this urgent request as soon as possible.
Stephanie Slater, Founder/CEO, School Food Matters and co-Chair School Food Plan Alliance
Barbara Crowther, Coordinator, Children’s Food Campaign
Anna Taylor OBE, Executive Director, Food Foundation
Naomi Duncan, Chief Executive, Chefs in Schools
James Toop, CEO, BiteBack2030
Rob Percival, Head of Policy, Soil Association’s Food for Life
Lindsay Boswell, CEO, FareShare
Dr Maria Bryant, Reader in Public Health Nutrition, Department of Health Sciences and the Hull York Medical School and ASO Chair of the Board of Trustees
Dr Debbie Weekes-Bernard, Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, Social Mobility and
Community Engagement, Greater London Authority
Alex Cunningham, CEO, Magic Breakfast
Kath Dalmeny, CEO of Sustain
Mark Game, CEO, The Bread and Butter Thing
Andy Burman, Chief Executive, The British Dietetic Association
Melissa Green, General Secretary of The Women’s Institute (The WI)
Cllr Judith Blake, LGA Labour Group, and Chair of LGA Children and Young People’s board
Clara Widdison, Head of Social Inclusion, Mayor’s Fund for London
Matthew Philpott, Executive Director, Food Active
Paul Wright, Founding Member, Children’s First Alliance
Eddie Crouch, Chair, British Dental Association
Sarah Hickey, Director of the Childhood Obesity Programme, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity
Graham MacGregor, Chair of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt
Peter McGrath, Operational Director, Meals and More
Mary McGrath, CEO, FoodCycle
Dr Helen Crawley, Director, First Steps Nutrition Trust
Alison Stiby Harris, Head of Public Affairs, Save the Children
Lucy Nethsingha, Lib Dem Spokesperson for CYP Board, LGA
Sabine Goodwin, Coordinator, Independent Food Aid Network
Jon Richards, Head of Education, UNISON
Professor of Public Health Nutrition, Teesside University and Associate Director of Fuse, The Centre for Translational Research in Public Health
Kevin Courtney and Dr. Mary Bousted, NEU Joint General Secretaries