By the time the half-term holidays are over on Friday, more than a hundred thousand meals will have been delivered to hungry children all across the country.
Spearheaded by England footballer and anti-hunger campaigner Marcus Rashford, the campaign to feed the country’s poorest children has set social media alight and has been met with widespread praise.
Yet despite a huge backlash and outpouring of public anger, the government has refused to continue the programme that had kept more than a million children fed through lockdown and the school holidays.
The Royal Mahal was one of the first businesses in south London to jump onto Rashford’s #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY scheme, offering a main course and dessert for children who usually receive a free school meal. “We find it ludicrous that our children are being victimised,” director Arfan Javid told HuffPost UK.
“The government should have extended free meals at the very least until the pandemic is over – this would have been the right thing to do.
“To see this happening in our own communities is a wake-up call for all of us to rethink our minds. No child should go hungry.”
The restaurant suffered “hugely” as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and received no help from the government, he said. But the local community stuck by them.
“The support and well wishes we have received from our most regular customers has been amazing. To provide these free meals is our way of paying them back and letting all know that we are in this together,” he said.
Indiaana, in Ramsey, Huntingdon was also hit hard by Covid-19. “We’ve had a very rough time since lockdown,” said owner Jay Choudhury.
During the height of the first wave, the restaurant provided free food to the over-70s who were in self-isolation. “This time it was children in our community and I believe they deserve this more than anyone else.”
Choudhury has been a supporter of many of the government’s decisions since the start of the pandemic – until now. “They have been doing what they can and to a certain degree, they have done a great job.
“But I totally disagree with children’s school vouchers being voted against. There are other places where they could have cut corners, not with children.”
“It’s despicable,” said Bradley Martin, owner of the Swiss Cottage Cafe in North Devon, which is offering a free packed lunch throughout the week. “Kids are not responsible or have any control of the food in their households and if no one helps, they will go hungry.
″[The government] is so far removed from the reality of real life. They have an expense allowance for almost everything, on top of a well-paid job and discounted restaurants in the [House of Commons].”
Martin said it was no surprise that local businesses were the ones who had come to rescue. “Businesses have been stepping in for years making up for government’s failures. This is not the first time we have had to help out, and probably won’t be the last.”
Over the weekend, Tory MP Selaine Saxby said in a now-deleted Facebook post that she “very much” hopes businesses offering to feed hungry children for free “will not be seeking any further government support”.
Saxby, who represents North Devon, wrote: “I am delighted our local businesses have bounced back so much after lockdown they are able to give away food for free, and very much hope they will not be seeking any further government support.”
Her comments were “shocking”, Martin said. “It shows how little empathy for the situation and understanding of the troubles small businesses are facing in this economic climate.”
Shuhel and Zak Ahmed were both recipients of free school meals when they were young. “It helped our parents massively, financially as well as with peace of mind not having to worry about making sure we were fed properly,” they told HuffPost UK.
So it felt natural for the owners of Babul’s of Barnard Castle to step up after they heard about the vote. “It’s our moral obligation to look after those around us. This isn’t a politically motivated decision.”
The restaurant is providing 100 meals each day for 15 days, consisting of grilled chicken and fresh vegetables.
“We feel that it is our responsibility to look after one another, regardless of whether the government helps or not. We are one big family, and must take care of each other in every way we possibly can.
“This is our way of showing appreciation to the community that has supported us through the years. It’s our way of giving back.”
I will always give food to anyone who needs it regardless if I can afford to or not. I can’t bear the thought of any child anywhere going hungry
Mandy Sc’erri, of Cherries Cafe in Bournemouth, said she felt “utterly disgusted” by Saxby’s comments. “We’re by no means back on our feet,” she said. “The pandemic has had a disastrous effect on most small businesses.
“I personally chose to do this because I will always give food to anyone who needs it regardless if I can afford to or not. I can’t bear the thought of any child anywhere going hungry. As soon as I heard there may some children going without this week I had to offer something.”
She said she had felt “very saddened” by the government’s vote last week.
“I have been a single parent myself and struggled at times to feed my son when he was young,” she told HuffPost UK. “I was also a school cook and know that sometimes a school meal is the only decent meal a child may get in a day.”
Although her cafe has been hit hard by the pandemic, her regular customers have offered to help towards the cost of the meals she is providing this week to both the children and their parents. “If they are struggling to feed their kids I’m sure they will be in need too,” she added.
“We’ve had very positive feedback. I have been inundated with people offering donations towards the cost of the lunches. I love the community spirit that this issue has created.”
The Eat Out to Help Out scheme cost the government £522m, while free school meals cost £20m each week. As one of the businesses that participated in the initiative in August, the owners of Piccolo Mondo Pizzeria in Wimborne, Dorset, have pointed to the hypocrisy of last week’s vote.
“Why subsidise those who can afford to eat out while not offering support to those who rely on help to feed their children?” asks Alessandra, adding that she “strongly disagrees” with the North Devon MP.
“Mrs Saxby is very wrong,” she said. “It is, and continues to be, a hard time for hospitality. We are helping the community in spite of our own hardship.”
“It was a no-brainer, really,” says Kathy Diamond of Denton Island Soul Kitchen in Newhaven, which is giving jacket potatoes and fruit juices to children this week. “If kids are going to go hungry then something needs to be done.”
Her business joined the scheme after hearing about other cafes offering to provide free school meals. “We had to do the same. It’s not rocket science – it’s filling hungry tummies.”
Diamond said she had received “amazing” feedback, with local businesses dropping off bottles of squash and water to show their support.
“I feel there’s a real community spirit in these strange times. We have had nothing but warmth, thanks and praise but, really, it’s simple stuff.
“The government should be ashamed of themselves. Times are hard at the moment.”
Nowhere has the debate surrounding free school meals been more divided than in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, where its MP has recently made headlines for claiming that free school meals “effectively” go towards paying a crack den and brothel in his constituency.
Schools and food banks in the area reacted with shock and anger, while businesses have taken it upon themselves to publicly declare themselves at odds with their elected representative.
“You have to be a very callous human to vote against feeding children,” says Amy Hancock of the White Post pub in Farnsfield. “Regardless of parental choices, to argue against feeding children who might go hungry through no fault of their own is despicable.”
Her pub is offering free packed lunches along with treats and tinned goods for anyone who needs it – not just families who are in receipt of free school meals.
“Even though the pandemic has turned my life upside down, I’m not in a position where I can’t feed my children,” she said. “Many people aren’t so lucky.
“You never know what’s happening behind closed doors. I’ve personally been in the position of literally counting the pennies but was too proud to ask for help.
“I believe that there’s incredible strength in asking for help when you need it, and I truly truly hope that this initiative reaches the people who do need it.”
A society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable and right now the British government seems to be treating them with disdain
Northern Soul Kitchen in Berwick-upon-Tweed has opened a half-term breakfast and lunch club where families can pay what they can afford, if anything.
“It’s very difficult for us to understand the government’s decision, to be honest,” said owners Millie Stanford and Harriet Grecian.
“Every day, we see the effects of austerity from the last decade or so. We see that families can be working and still struggle to feed themselves and their children. And now with the pandemic, things are worse than ever.
“It is baffling to us that the government can one day offer vouchers for people to eat out in restaurants but then the next day they say they won’t help the poorest families in the country.
“A society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable and right now the British government seems to be treating them with disdain.”