Government make U-turn on free school meals over summer following Marcus Rashford's campaign and open letter

The England striker is campaigning passionately for young people...

Marcus Rashford
(Image credit: Getty Images)

22-year-old England and Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford has just won a passionate campaign to protect school children against hunger this summer.

Over the last few days, the popular football player has been fighting to get the government to extend its free school meals voucher scheme over the summer holidays, rather than cancel it, for low-income families. Following the lockdown, Marcus Rashford partnered with the food distribution charity FareShare, to cover some of the free school meal deficit while schools across the UK were closed due to the coronavirus. Together, they raised £20 million to provide three million meals to vulnerable people across the UK.

He has explained that given the immense number of job losses as a result of Covid-19, and the closure of schools for last few months, many families are now facing the very serious issue of food poverty, a UK-wide problem that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

And amazingly, Marcus' important campaign for free school meals to continue in the summer has paid off - with Boris Johnson today agreeing to extend the food voucher scheme for six weeks. Tory MPs chose to vote against free school meals in October 2020, however.

The government will now set up a "Covid summer school fund" to help feed children during the holidays. Children who are normally eligible for free school meals in term time - in England - will now get a six-week food voucher.

Of the success of the campaign, Marcus said, "I don’t even know what to say. Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020."

Marcus Rashford's powerful letter on free school meals

As part of his campaign, the England striker yesterday penned a message detailing the struggle low-income families have told him they are facing right now, and reflected on his own experience with the free school meals scheme.

He wrote, 'My mum worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table. But it was not enough. The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked. As a family, we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of neighbours and coaches.

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'I have received thousands of insights from people struggling,' he continued. '1.3 million children in England are registered for free school meals, one quarter of these children have not been given any support since the school closures were ordered.'

Marcus Rashford also shared an impassioned plea in The Times as part of his campaign, asking MPs to 'put rivalries aside' to focus on the far more important issue of children's hunger.

He wrote, 'Today I focus on a trophy that stands for something much bigger than football. A U-turn on the decision to stop the free food voucher scheme continuing over the summer holidays could help us reach the next round but we still have a very long way to go as a country to eventually lift the trophy. In this case, the trophy is combating child poverty.

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'Today I am asking that all MPs put their rivalries aside and stand in solidarity on an issue that could prove detrimental to the stability of families across the country for generations to come. Help us break the cycle of hardship. Please, do the right thing and extend the free food voucher scheme throughout the school summer holidays. Give our vulnerable families just one less thing to worry about.'

What was happening with Marcus Rashford's free school meals campaign before today?

Before the success of today, the campaign hit a roadblock, last night, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to reconsider the government's decision. The plea was rejected by government on Monday, despite backing from many MPs. The Prime Minister's official spokesperson said that they were launching a range of other schemes instead.

They explained, "The PM understands the issues facing families across the UK, which is why last week the government announced an additional £63m for local authorities to benefit families who are struggling to afford food and other basic essentials."

MORE: Help with school uniform: how to apply for the school uniforms government grant in 2020

He did promise to respond to Marcus' letter, though - and it appears that the letter and support from swathes of the public is what has sparked the PM's U-turn decision.

It's reported that 1.3 million children in low-income families rely on food vouchers,.

In Wales, free school meals will also continue over the summer holidays.

Therese Coffey's 'tone deaf' response to Marcus Rashford's letter

This morning, Marcus Rashford posted a series of tweets asking people to imagine the daily reality of many low-income families across the UK. One of his tweets read, 'When you wake up this morning and run your shower, take a second to think about parents who have had their water turned off during lockdown #maketheuturn.'

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Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal Therese Coffey simply responded, 'Water cannot be disconnected though'. Marcus replied to Therese, explaining, 'I’m concerned this is the only tweet of mine you acknowledged. Please, put rivalries aside for a second, and make a difference #maketheuturn'.

Following her Tweet, Therese garnered some criticism, with the shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds tweeting, "Imagine having priorities so warped that this snarky comment is your response to @MarcusRashford’s powerful campaign. @theresecoffey do the right thing: apologise and vote for free school meals for children in poverty this summer."

Piers Morgan similarly criticised the MP, saying on GMB, "That is her response. That’s it. No empathy, no attempt to understand, no attempt to support him."

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However, Therese has since replied to Marcus, stating that he and the current government share 'the same aim'. On Twitter, she wrote, 'Hi @MarcusRashford, I welcome your passion for supporting children and the most vulnerable in society - a passion we share. We are working to the same aim. I & this Govt will continue to actively help and support families and businesses through this emergency and beyond.'

Other reactions to the campaign from MPs

The government's initial rejection of the plea came despite huge support from other MPs, and the Labour party, including Labour leader Keir Starmer and London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

In a statement, Keir said, "Marcus Rashford is right, we cannot let 1.3 million children go hungry this summer. Thank you, Marcus, for all the work you are doing to support children during the coronavirus crisis."

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Sadiq Khan said, "As a child I benefitted from free school meals. Life would have been much harder for my family if we didn’t have them. The Govt need to listen to @MarcusRashford and extend the free school meal scheme for disadvantaged children over the summer holidays."

MORE: What can I do in lockdown now? Plus the next phases of easing lockdown

Am I eligible for free school meals?

If you are part of a low income family you may be wondering if your children are eligible for food support from the government during this time.

You can check if you are able to access the scheme on the government website here.

This government page also provides more insight on help and assistance for the voucher scheme, or you can email any enquiries to this address:

Senior Digital Writer

Amy is Senior Digital Writer across Woman & Home, GoodTo and Woman, writing about everything from celebrity news to health, fashion and beauty features. When she isn't obsessing over the latest dress drop from Marks & Spencer, you'll most likely find Amy out running, or with a cup of tea in hand ready to dive into a gripping new Netflix series.