Rashford’s free school meals campaign inspires Leeds residents to fill the gap left by Downing Street

England and Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend the free school meals programme over the holidays has been bolstered in the last few weeks as local authorities, small businesses and residents came together to provide free-school meals to the vulnerable over the recent half term break.

Recently, there have been setbacks to the campaign, most notably the defeat to Labour’s motion that called for free school meals to be extended over the Christmas holidays.

However, many local authorities and small businesses are stepping in to fill the gap, including in Leeds.

The Healthy Holidays programme, which is run by Leeds Community Foundation in partnership with Leeds City Council and other organisations, provides children and families with access to meals and activities during the holidays.

Fiona Venner, Leeds City Council’s Executive Member for Children and Families, said: “We are so proud of our communities pulling together to plug the gap, but we know that those gaps are becoming a chasm thanks to the Government’s complete lack of compassion.”

As well as Leeds City Council, many local residents have been doing what they can to donate to local food banks and initiatives across the city.

Leeds United captain Liam Cooper announced that players at the newly-promoted club would donate £25,000 to Rashford’s campaign. Soon after, the club itself announced that it would match its players’ pledge.

It was not just Rashford’s fellow sports stars backing the campaign however, as artists such as Coldplay and Louis Tomlinson expressed their support for the campaign via Twitter.

Opposition continues to be prominent in Westminster too, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer stating that “schools are pillars of our communities and may need to be reimagined during this period, so that those with additional needs get the support they need.”

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey echoed a similar call, stating: “we need the Government to commit to practical, long term measures to prevent any child going hungry, on any day of the year.”

Opposition also came in the form of ex-Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, who retweeted a message from the official Brexit Party Twitter account which read: “The Government was happy to help adults to eat out in August, but no it lets the poorest children go hungry during the school holidays. Does this seem fair to you?”

It’s clear that as the debate continues to ravage around Westminster, it’s leading to unlikely political bedfellows.

In spite of the almost unprecedented opposition, the Government appears to be doubling down.

Boris Johnson, speaking at a visit to a hospital in Reading, said he “totally” understands the “issue of holiday hunger” and that the question was about “how do you deal with it?”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak also backed Johnson’s claim, and went even further to state that the Government has “provided resources to local authorities to help in a targeted way the most vulnerable children that need looking after.”

There are certainly hints, however, that the political backlash is taking its toll on some MPs, with Wolverhampton South West MP Stuart Anderson reporting receiving threats to him and his staff.

Other Conservatives aren’t so certain that this Government will continue its opposition to the proposal, with rumours circulating that some newer ‘blue wall’ Conservative MPs are “spooked” by the backlash they are receiving in light of the vote.

Former Chancellor George Osborne used his column in the Evening Standard, the paper for which he is Editor-In-Chief, to claim that a U-Turn from the Government was now “inevitable.”

Highlighting the political battles he faced surrounding issues of food banks as Chancellor, he expressed: “I was armed with all the facts … but the answers felt tin-eared when confronted with real stories of hungry families.”

He went onto explain that “Marcus Rashford has got this right. The Government needs to realise that it’s game over.”

If you are in a position to support the Leeds Healthy Holiday programme, please contact Leeds Community Foundation on leedshealthyholidays@leedscf.org.uk.

* The government has since embarked on yet another U-turn, deciding to run a £170m Covid winter grant scheme.

Image Credit: The Scotsman