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London Restaurants Join Marcus Rashford in Exposing Government Food Policy Failure

As more and more restaurants and cafes offer free school meals, Boris Johnson’s government is under increasing pressure

Paper bags of free school meals made at the Duke of Richmond pub and restaurant on a table, divided in to two sections and labelled as “HAM” and “CHEESE”
A collection table outside the Duke of Richmond in Dalston, east London
The Duke of Richmond/Instagram

Where does the free school meal conversation go from here?

Restaurants and cafes up and down the U.K. have joined footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals during school holidays by offering to feed children in England this half term. After a government vote last week left English schoolchildren the only in Great Britain without an extension on free school meal vouchers, restaurants across London have offered meals, produce, and ingredients to parents, no questions asked.

Rashford spent his weekend off the pitch documenting the efforts of hundreds of restaurants across the country to provide free school meals over half-term, with the likes of citywide chains Bao, Bleecker Burger, and Chick n Sours; Clerkenwell’s The Quality Chop House; Dalston pub The Duke of Richmond; Borough Market’s Mei Mei; Old Spitalfields Market’s Dumpling Shack; and Ealing’s Maryam’s Kitchen laying on hundreds of lunches. Butchers The Butchery are partnering with fruit and vegetable supplier Natoora to provide ingredients at its local shops, and the numbers of restaurants involved are only likely to grow.

Rashford has been praised for his efforts across the political spectrum, both online and off as an ambassador for food charity FareShare. But while his previous efforts forced the government into u-turns on its free school meal policies that — along with the impact of COVID-19 — created this problem, so far Boris Johnson has refused to extend a government scheme designed to feed hungry children before a footballer or a restaurant have to step in.

Rashford is manifestly aware that the strength of his campaign in part relies on framing children going hungry as an entirely moral problem, and not a political one exacerbated by the austerity policies brought in by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in 2010. Its effectiveness comes from explicitly asserting that there is a crisis that needs to be fixed, and from not explicitly asserting who caused the crisis and who should be fixing it.

It shows in some of the reaction, in jest though it may be, that implores the footballer to take over coronavirus testing or asserts that he is the one leading the country. Rashford’s ostensible neutrality broadens his appeal and extends the reach of his message. His tireless work, like the efforts of individual restaurants and those who sustain the food banks whose role feeding tens of thousands in the U.K has been slowly normalised, should be commended. But when a crisis in child hunger is caused by policy and worsened by politicians, the efforts of those outside of politics can necessarily only achieve so much.

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