Rejecting free school meals: The Government’s lack of empathy has gone too far

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Last December, tens of thousands of us tuned in to Channel 4’s Dispatches to watch Growing Up Poor: Britain’s Breadline Kids. We all liked the tweets, tearing up at the videos of the 8- or 9-year olds earnestly explaining how they must try to make their food go further. The documentary showcased several different families whose lives had been flipped upside down – be it from abuse, illness, parents splitting up. In each case, when things had gone wrong, the Tory government had not been there to support them.


We watched these stories, heartbroken at the reality of what these children were going through. Yet, scarcely two weeks later, 45% of voters in the UK general election voted Conservative once again. Flash forward ten months, and the impact of that vote has never felt more hurtful. On Wednesday, 322 MPs voted against the motion of extending the support of free school meals for children over the school holidays – at a time when it is needed more than ever.


There are currently 4.2 million children in Britain growing up in poverty, according to CPAG. Of those, 1.4 million children were claiming free school meals pre-pandemic. The Food Foundation thinktank estimate that as many as 900,000 more children on top of that have since sought free school meals as a result of COVID-19’s impact on employment and income. That is millions of children who are going to suffer over half terms and holidays. Yet, the government don’t see the need to help them. Frankly, it’s
appalling.

My home constituency of Wakefield consistently had a Labour MP for 87 years. That is, until last December, when Conservative Imran Ahmad-Khan was voted in. Waking up on Thursday morning to the news that my MP had voted against Labour’s motion of extending free school meals was devastating. In an area where 28.1% of secondary school pupils qualify for free school meals, it’s completely callous and heart-breaking to see your MP ignore such an important cry for help. An MP is supposed to represent their constituents, but I do not know one single person in Wakefield who would oppose the idea of feeding children who might otherwise suffer.


Marcus Rashford’s campaign was born from compassion and absolute necessity, but it feels like it has just been met with utter heartlessness. This is even more intensified by the fact that the very MPs voting against it are having £3k pay rises, enjoying subsidised food costs in the Houses of
Parliament, and were just a matter of weeks ago urging us all to ‘Eat Out to Help Out’. When it comes to children who might struggle to have a proper meal, however? The care and concern has gone.


In 2019, 18.2% of pupils in Leeds were eligible and claiming free school meals. The Yorkshire Evening Post today reported that 35,000 of our city’s children are living life on the breadline. We’re in the middle of a pandemic – these figures are only going to get worse. The working-class has been
absolutely demonized throughout the last few months – scapegoated for having the most increases in cases and often forced under more local lockdowns, further damaging incomes, the class divide only seems to have increased. The working-class can’t necessarily afford to keep staying at home – in fact, a large amount of the NHS workers we were months ago incessantly clapping for are indeed working-class and reaching for food banks. When it comes to actually having the chance to help them and their children out, it seems as though the government can’t contribute anything more substantial than banging pots together on their doorstep.

Whilst it’s fantastic to see local businesses banding together to offer support and food to children in need right now, they shouldn’t need to. If our MPs had any empathy or understanding of what those below the breadline are going through, they’d perhaps realise that hunger and a lack of money doesn’t understand the dates defining half terms and school holidays. What the Tories are doing is cold and cruel – feeding children should never have been up for debate in the first place and it speaks volumes that it was. Even more so that it was debated, and rejected, when there are children starving at stake. Perhaps it comes as no surprise – another extension of the Tory government being uncaring and unsympathetic. Personally, though, I never thought it would extend quite this far.


The Trussell Trust work to stop UK poverty and hunger – you can make a one-off donation or find out how to donate to their food banks here.

Featured image via Sky News.