Marcus Rashford’s free school meal campaigning has again pressured the government into a U-turn on food policy. The Manchester United and England footballer acknowledged his place in a long line of campaigners, charities, and volunteers when reacting to a new £400 million-plus funding package for winter that the government squeaked out over the weekend, with the world distracted by the U.S. election cycle.
Rashford said: “To the campaigners, charity workers, volunteers, teachers, care workers, key workers, that have fought for this level of progress for years, thank you. This is YOUR victory. Never underestimate the role you have all played. I’m just honoured to be on this journey with you.”
The £406 million will be split into £170 million of council funding from December to March 2021; £220 million to extend free school meal and food voucher programmes through academic holidays in 2021; and a £16 million funding increase for food banks, which have been massively overstretched by the novel coronavirus pandemic’s exacerbation of food poverty caused by Conservative austerity policy dating back to 2010.
Boris Johnson had previously denied Rashford and fellow campaigners’ calls for an extension to free school meal vouchers over academic holidays, with Conservative MPs voting against a motion brought by Labour that would have provided the support. This caused consternation both at large and within the Conservative party, with one MP resigning over the issue and several more decrying the government’s decision on Twitter. It also meant that critical food support was not provided through the October half term; with vulnerable children instead relying on private donations or individual initiatives through that period.
The strength of Rashford’s campaign goes hand in hand with showing the weakness of government food policy. It is not a 23-year-old footballer’s job to organise a policy that feeds hungry children, and his ostensible neutrality — a key strength of his campaigning — in part works because he explicitly asserts that there is a crisis that needs to be fixed, without explicitly asserting who caused the crisis and who should be fixing it. Indeed, both the government’s policy and its mode of dispensing it are telling. The policy itself will increase not just state funding, but funding for food banks whose ultimate goal is not to exist; the policy is dispensed reactively, just when public opinion and one young footballer gets strong enough to force its hand. Rashford’s campaigning is empathetic, smart, and strategic — he knows precisely what the problems are from both his own experience and others’ testimony. He knows how he can handle them to benefit the most people.
If only this were true of the people he is putting under pressure.