Downing Street has promised to “carefully consider” calls by the footballer Marcus Rashford for the government to take fresh action to tackle childhood hunger.
After successfully shaming Boris Johnson into extending food vouchers for poor households through the school summer holidays, the Manchester United and England forward on Tuesday launched a new campaign.
He has won the support of a string of food businesses, and is calling on ministers to implement three key recommendations from a government-commissioned food strategy.
They include the expansion of free school meals to every child whose family is on universal credit; an expansion of holiday food and activity provision to all children on free school meals; and a significant boost to the value of healthy start vouchers for families with young children.
Rashford’s campaign was immediately backed by some MPs, with the deputy Labour leader, Angela Rayner, and shadow justice secretary, David Lammy, both tweeting their support.
Asked about Rashford’s campaign, Johnson’s official spokesman said: “We are taking substantial action to make sure that no child goes hungry during the pandemic and continue to support those in need.
“Our national voucher scheme supported children eligible for free school meals while they were at home and the Covid summer fund ensured that families continued to receive support over the summer. We will carefully consider the taskforce recommendations.”
The schools minister, Nick Gibb, told BBC Breakfast he would be “delighted” to meet Rashford to discuss the proposals.
“We are looking at all the policy suggestions that he [Rashford] has put forward in his letter to ensure we do deliver our shared objective, which is to alleviate the kind of poverty which he talks about,” Gibb said.
In a letter to MPs published on Tuesday, Rashford said “food poverty is contributing to social unrest”. He described “watching a young boy keeping it together whilst his mother sobbed alongside him, feeling like he has to step up to protect his family and alleviate some of that worry. He was nine years old.”
“I know that feeling,” he wrote. “I remember the sound of my mum crying herself to sleep to this day, having worked a 14-hour shift, unsure how she was going to make ends meet. That was my reality.”
The food strategy document was written by a panel of experts and industry figures chaired by Henry Dimbleby, founder of the Leon restaurant chain, and published in July. A second instalment is due in the coming months.
The proposals are backed by Aldi, Co-op, Deliveroo, Iceland, Kellogg’s, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.
Rashford wrote: “Mothers and fathers are raising respectful, eloquent young men and women, who, in reality, are part of a system that will not allow them the opportunity to win and succeed. Add school closures, redundancies and furloughs into the equation and we have an issue that could negatively impact generations to come. It all starts with stability around access to food.”
The footballer, who is working in partnership with the charities FareShare and the Food Foundation, said in his letter that the progress made by his previous victory on free school meals “was only ever going to support this issue in the short term”. And he said a recent visit to the Evelyn Community Store in Deptford, south-east London had redoubled his commitment to the cause.
“I spoke to a mother recently who, along with her two young sons, is currently living off three slices of bread a day – soaking them in hot water and adding sugar, hoping that the porridge consistency might better sustain the hunger of her one-year-old child,” he wrote. “This is the true reality of England in 2020.”