'Massive win' for children needing free school meals

The Government’s announcement that it will continue to offer free school meals to children during the summer holidays has been hailed a “massive win” by the constituency youth officer for Congleton Labour Party.
On Tuesday it was announced that Boris Johnson had listened to Manchester United star Marcus Rashford's calls for an extension of the free school meals voucher scheme into the summer holidays and made a U-turn.
The announcement was music to the ears of 16-year-old Joe Davies, of Alsager, who had written to Congleton MP Fiona Bruce and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer urging them to press the Government to do exactly the same, as he feared families feeling the financial impact of the pandemic could suffer even more during the six-week holiday if there was not enough money to put food on the table.
Initially, the Government had announced a £9m summer holiday activities and food programme for disadvantaged children. Joe said he was “doubtful” that with its limited budget, the scheme would have “anywhere near the same reach free school meals currently have”.
However, the campaign by the 22-year-old Manchester United forward, whose family had had to rely on school free meals, soon took off. Mr Rashford said in his letter to the Government: “Food poverty in England is a pandemic that could span generations.”
The U-turn means about 1.3 million children in England will be able to claim free school meal vouchers during the holidays.
Responding to the news Joe, who previously said he was lucky enough not to need free school meals himself, posted on social media: “Brilliant! Massive win for the 1.3m kids who will need this scheme over the coming weeks.”
The Chronicle reported recently how the Alsager School pupil had said the furlough scheme, in which the Government was paying up to 80% of employees' salaries during the lockdown, had been “a great help” to families, maintaining their source of income, and helping secure their jobs.
But he said the free school meals scheme, which was extended during the Easter and Whitsun holidays, was also “invaluable” to many families as it ensured their children ate a hot school meal each day.
At the time, Joe said: “The school year ends in a few weeks, yet the pandemic will still be here. Families are going to struggle over the coming months, and with the summer already shown to be a time in which some of the poorest families struggle the most, we cannot leave our country's children to wonder if they'll eat that day.
“The solution is to continue the free school meal scheme over the summer. It will ensure our country's kids get a hot meal a day, it will relieve financial pressure on their parents, and, most importantly, it will improve a child's life.”
In her response to Joe, before Tuesday's U-turn by her Conservative Government, Mrs Bruce had said: “I understand why free school meals, and the voucher scheme which has been in operation during the current pandemic, are so vital for our young people.
“I am assured that ministers are keeping the provision of free school meals under review and will keep Parliament updated accordingly so the information I provide to you know may change.
“While during the Easter and half term holidays the department for education met the costs of the national voucher scheme to provide free school meals for eligible pupils, in recognition of the unprecedented levels of disruption and uncertainty for schools during this time, the voucher scheme will not run over the summer. However, a £9m summer holiday activities and food programme will offer activities and meals to thousands of disadvantaged children.
“Although this is not directly the change you ask for, I hope this is helpful.”
Joe had reacted to Mrs Bruce's response by saying: “While the Government's programme is not the change I asked for, I feel that as long as it allows the children of the country to receive a hot meal a day then it is something I can welcome. The added benefit of summer activities, while not mentioned by me, is just as important and just as welcome for me. I am pleased to see that the Government has taken positive action to help the children of this country.”
Joe, who plans to return to the sixth form at Alsager School to study A-level politics, economics, maths and physics, had also written to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who confronted Mr Johnson at the despatch box during prime minister’s questions in Parliament last week.
Sir Keir asked Mr Johnson to extend the national voucher scheme to ensure free meals over the summer for vulnerable children or risk “further inequality” in England.
Mr Johnson replied: “We don't normally continue with free school meals over the summer holidays but we're also aware of the particular difficulties faced by vulnerable families.
“That's why we're announcing a further £63m of local welfare assistance to be used by local authorities at their discretion to help the most vulnerable families.”
Afterwards, Joe wrote back to Sir Keir saying: “While, in my pessimism, I doubt this is due to the email I sent to you six days ago, I would, regardless, still like to thank you for bringing up the important issue of free school meals.
“While the Government has put in place an alternative scheme, with the added bonus of the activities they are planning to provide, I can't not feel sceptical over the reach this new, alternative scheme will have.
“It's doubtful, with its limited budget, it will have anywhere near the reach free school meals currently have, and I have some doubt on what it will actually provide.
“It's on this, could I ask you that you monitor the situation and ensure through holding the Government to account that the scheme is effective, and provides a hot meal a day to the children that need it the most.”
Joe's email to the Labour leader added: “Furthermore, could I add on that you try and ensure the reach of the programme goes beyond London and the major cities to the more rural areas like where I live in Congleton, or to Kidsgrove in Stoke North, or to Crewe?”