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Government Won’t Extend Free School Meals to Half Term (Until Marcus Rashford Says So)

It’s made the call days after parents and campaigners condemned food parcels

A food bank volunteer carries food parcels in a carrier bag up a driveway, alongside a child Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

The government will not extend free school meal provision over the February half-term, in the same week that free school meals provided by the private sector have been condemned as “unacceptable” by parents and campaigners.

After a combination of the public, chef and food campaigner Jack Monroe, and footballer Marcus Rashford forced the government to reintroduce its national free school meal voucher scheme — which it had previously said would “reopen shortly” — it published new guidance on claiming those vouchers. As reported by the BBC, within the guidance is the following:

Schools do not need to provide lunch parcels or vouchers during the February half-term. There is wider government support in place to support families and children outside of term-time through the Covid Winter Grant Scheme.

For that scheme to be genuinely effective, it would require local authorities to provide the same levels of food support that schools can under the voucher scheme, with all the logistics that entails, for just one week, when the voucher scheme is already there and ready to go. Financially, that’s £15 per week of food, per child, and the pictures of food parcels from contractors circulating this week show that such a figure doesn’t guarantee sufficient nutrition.

The justification in the guidance is that “Local authorities have local ties and knowledge, making them best placed to identify and help those children and families most in need.” Free school meal eligibility doesn’t have internal scales, so who is “most in need” isn’t important. It’s the same children eligible for the voucher scheme that they are being denied over the holiday. The £170 million funding it cites as replacing the vouchers is also the fruit of a u-turn forced by Rashford in November.

Earlier this week, Johnson took the bizarre route of praising Rashford for his advocacy in the House of Commons, suggesting that the footballer was holding him to account better than the leader of the opposition, Labour’s Keir Starmer. He said: “And I’m grateful to Marcus Rashford who highlighted the issue and is doing quite an effective job by comparison with the right honourable gentleman in holding the government to account for these issues.” As much as it’s an attempted burn on Starmer, it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of one’s own commitment to the highest political office in England.

Rashford has already forced the government into one holiday u-turn, with its voucher scheme extended over summer 2020 after pressure led by the Manchester United and England star. To take an educated gaze into the crystal ball, this will be reversed in the last week of January, after he phones Boris Johnson up while through on goal at Old Trafford and nutmegs the prime minister with some more free policy recommendations. Or it could be reversed now — but there’s none of the injury time frisson in that for the government.

While leaving decision making to the last possible moment has been a hallmark of its coronavirus policy, that at least has an explanation tied to a perceived loss of popularity from reducing liberties, illusory or not. When it comes to feeding children, it appears to be passing up free goodwill for what can only be the perceived “kudos” of listening to overwhelming popular opinion, instead of actively deciding to adhere to it.