Chancellor Rishi Sunak has snubbed a call from footballer Marcus Rashford to continue the free school holiday meals policy.
Writing a joint letter with supermarket bosses and food industry leaders, which was first reported in the Sunday Times, the England and Manchester United forward urged the government to extend the programme for for the next three years – including outside of term time.
The signatories, including representatives from Sainsbury’s, Asda and Co-op, say the scheme was “a great success” during the earlier stages of the coronavirus pandemic, after the government was forced to U-turn and set aside £170m to help feed disadvantaged children over the Christmas holidays following Rashford’s campaigning.
After the government’s change of heart, Rashford said he was “so proud” of those who had united behind his campaign and that he was “overwhelmed by the outpouring of empathy and understanding”.
Almost a year on and the footballer is again throwing his weight behind another child food poverty campaign.
But Mr Sunak said as provisions such as furlough have now come to an end, so too should the provision of free school meals during the holidays.
“So we put in place some measures to help families during coronavirus, that was the right thing to do, and in common with the other things that have now come to an end, whether it was furlough or other things, that’s right that we’ve transitioned to a more normal way of doing things,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
“But we have replaced… but we have actually already acted, is what I’d say to Marcus and everyone else. We’ve put in place something called the holiday activities programme, which provides not just meals but also activities for children during holiday periods for those families that need extra help.
“That is a new programme, it was announced earlier this year, it’s being rolled out across the country, and I think that can make an enormous difference to people.”
Rashford’s letter urged the government to consider that “equality of opportunity” began with guaranteeing children could eat well “at least once a day”.
It reads: “Better jobs are the route out of poverty, and the virtue of these children’s food schemes is that when working families shore up their income they can buy school and holiday meals themselves.
“Until this happens, surely equality of opportunity and levelling-up begin with guaranteeing that every child in Britain can eat well – at least once a day.”
The signatories go on to estimate that extending free school meals over the holidays and the Healthy Start Programme – which provides schools with vouchers redeemable for fruit, vegetables and milk – would cost £1.1bn each year.
This would equate to 1% of the current education budget.
The England forward has also previously campaigned for the free school meal provision to be extended to all children aged seven to 18 in all households earning £20,000 or less after benefits, and to children that are undocumented or living in immigrant households with no recourse to public funds.
Earlier this month, Rashford became the youngest recipient of an honorary degree from the University of Manchester for fighting child poverty.
Accepting his award, he said the moment was “bittersweet” coming the day after the £20 Universal Credit uplift – which Rashford had campaigned to remain in place – was retracted.
Former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, who also boasts an honorary degree from the university, joined the footballer’s friends and family to witness him collecting the award, presented by vice-chancellor, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell.
Rashford also launched a new fight to end the “child hunger pandemic” earlier in October and urged ministers to act on the growing problem.
The footballer also became the youngest person to top The Sunday Times Giving List after amassing £20m in donations from supermarkets and campaign groups.
His use of social media will be added to the GCSE media studies curriculum after he used online platforms to promote charity work close to his heart.