Why the #FreeSchoolMeals vote stung

In reaction to the #FreeSchoolMeals debate in the House of Commons a few days ago, something hit differently.

This is just business as usual for the Conservatives

This was not the first time that the Tories had tried to take food out of the mouths of children.

When I used to work in politics, it was an annual event to check if free school meals, especially the fledgling Universal Infant Free School Meals policy, was safe for another year in the Budget and Spending Reviews. Nicky Morgan herself tried to pander to the right of the Conservative Party by bandying the idea around in the Department of Education to get rid of Universal Infant Free School Meals, not long after the 2015 General Election in the Spending Review then.

We also campaigned vociferously in my latter days on the impact of Universal Credit on access to free school meals – this was the last speech I wrote for my Member of Parliament. So, I’m not new to the fact that when it comes to free school meals that the Tories are not natural policy bedfellows for such a crucial policy for both social justice, health and education.

The outrage from the public, or those who I follow on social media (gotta remember that echo chamber), is welcome and justified but when this is something you have experienced for years from the Conservative Party and have seen the impact of the Tories’ lack of policy on child poverty on the frontline, you do have a sense of numbness. Of “Here we go again”.

But something just hit differently. I gave some initial thoughts to this on Twitter not long after the debate, here. Yet, it is still sitting uncomfortably within me.

It’s not been something I can shake off this time. I feel pretty despondent at the situation, a real deep pit of anger and emptiness (oxymoronic, much).

Having that macro-level and micro-level perspective on this, has definitely brought different perspectives to this policy area. When I was working at the macro-level, I was driven by social justice to not see children growing up in poverty. I got into politics to change the world – sue me!

Working at the frontline

Yet, now that I am at the micro-level, I am seeing the extent of the problem that is continually being ignored by this Government. Which has only become exacerbated by COVID-19.

I’ve seen first hand the lack of, or poorly provided, support from Government to struggling families. During the height of the lockdown, I would spend days most weeks trying to walk parents and tutees through accessing the vouchers system that had so hastily and badly been set up – some parents told me on the phone that they had to miss meals themselves so their kids could eat because the voucher system wasn’t working or had to resort to going to the food bank, all because of the shoddy system.

Our school was amazing at going that extra mile for families, and would provide food parcels to families every two weeks to help parents put food on the table for their kids. This didn’t come from the Government, but instead from local catering companies, School Food Matters and individuals who provided food and money to buy food. All who stepped in to help families out who were in need. I was there for some of the collection days. The same parents week in and week out, looking uncomfortable but also grateful that we were able to help them out – even just a little bit.

Sometimes we even took some food out to the local housing estate that bordered the school site, and gave out some food there. One mother with 6 kids was so grateful that we were able to give her some bread, milk and a huge cardboard box of fruit – saying how she was really struggling to feed the kids and was so grateful.

The veneer has slipped

None of them living in crack dens or trading their food for drugs, or leading to dependency, as one Member of Parliament likes to depict. The families who came to collect food never wanted to take anymore than they needed (which was less than what we were giving out).

The reaction to demands to feed children who need it during the school holidays feels like it is coming from a cruel and nasty place – the veneer has well and truly slipped. The attacks on Marcus Rashford for simply trying to do some good for young people in the country are shameful. He should be applauded, not denigrated like he has been. The obfuscation of saying: “why doesn’t a rich international football player pay for it all then?’ wreaks of denial of the situation we’re in and a condescending attitude towards those who need support.

It’s the Government’s job to protect and offer a helping hand to those who need it. It’s called being a civilised, compassionate society.

This issue has been around for an age

This isn’t a new issue – it is not just one that has just been of the Tory’s own making with their austerity policies, it is not just one that has been made due to the coronavirus. The issue of child food poverty and holiday hunger has a long-standing place in the history of this country – one that takes us back to pre-World War One! However, it is one that the Tories should morally address right now.

100 years ago, The then Labour MP for Bradford, Fred Jowett, had seen the malnutrition of children when he saw those who were attending compulsory schooling were not able to learn and were malnourished (this was also exacerbated by the Government’s concerns when calling on working class recruits for the Boer War were emaciated and unable to fight due to not being strong enough). Jowett introduced free school meals within his education authority, when he was on Bradford’s Education Board – an illegal act – and upon becoming an MP introduced a Private Member’s Bill to introduce a national scheme for free school meals which was added as a clause to the Liberal’s Education Act of 1906.

However, Jowett didn’t stop there and in 1914, in the months leading up to the First World War, he begged (not literally, that’s just Parliamentary language to say to bring in a Bill) to bring in a Bill to Parliament which would have extended provision of school meals to the holidays. In his opening remarks in the debate, Jowett said:

“it is hardly worth arguing that if food is necessary when the school is open for ordinary purposes it is equally necessary when the school is not open for those purposes and during the holidays.”

I couldn’t put it better myself. Jowett goes on to explain the situation in Bradford saying: “while the schools are in operation and meals are being given, the poor children who need the meals consistently improve in physique, and that when the schools are closed, if meals are not provided, they deteriorate in physique and lose part of the advantages which they had previously”

What Jowett was saying here was exemplified in the uncovering of a graph from 1907 by Dr Vic McGowan during her time at Durham University, which you can see below.

It shouldn’t be that it has taken us over a century to fight to get this situation right (let’s hope it is not going to take another century!!). It shouldn’t be up to a young footballer to be co-ordinating such an epic, beyond proportions, co-ordination right across the country to help those families who need it. It shouldn’t be up to those businesses who have already been struggling to be going that extra mile, however welcome it may be.

It should be the Government.

The covenant between a government and its people who elect it is to be there when we need them; not drawing up the ladder and telling us to either sink or swim.

That’s what stings.

To help out with the civil society efforts to fill in where the Government has absconded their responsibility, go to FareShare’s website to donate.

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