A mural of Manchester United and England soccer player Marcus Rashford by artist Akse_P19 © Phil Noble/Reuters

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Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford had two victories over the weekend. The first was on the pitch, where his team beat Everton. The second was in his campaign for the UK government to fund meals for disadvantaged children during school holidays.

As much of the world was focused on the US election, the government quietly announced it was committed to spending £400m in food support across England — including £220m for holiday food and activities and £170m for local councils to support poor families during the winter — its second U-turn on the issue this year.

But while Mr Rashford — who discussed the package in a phone call with Boris Johnson — praised the government’s “positive” intentions, he said the funding would not go far enough.

He is one of many campaigners who argue that subsidising school meals is just a first step in tackling child food poverty — a problem rooted in low wages and a “threadbare” welfare system that is set to dramatically increase in the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The footballer’s immediate concern was the “approximately 1.7m children” whose annual family income does not meet the stringent £7,400 threshold for free school meals in England. 

Along with the Child Food Poverty Task Force, a coalition of charities and companies, he is calling for the government to extend eligibility for free school lunches, holiday activities and healthy start vouchers to all children in households that receive the government’s universal credit benefit.

Campaigners say these families — the number of which increased from 2.6m in February 2020 to 4.2m in May, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank — are falling through the gaps, and could still struggle to put food on the table.

“The income threshold for those schemes is set too low at the moment,” said Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, a member of the task force. “There is this group of kids that are falling outside of the scheme, and they need help.”

Charities such as the Food Foundation, which work to prevent child food poverty, say the welfare system itself requires ambitious intervention. 

Among the most damaging policies, according to economists, are a two-child limit on all benefits and tax credits — so parents can only claim support for their first two children — and a cap on total benefits of £20,000 per year outside London.

Dave Innes, the chief economist at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said the limits contributed to a system that was failing to help families that needed it. “The root cause of child food poverty is families not having enough income,” he said. “The universal credit system should be providing families that support, but the current crisis has really shone a light on how threadbare that system is.”

The Rowntree Foundation is campaigning for the government to continue a £20 a week uplift to universal credit that has been offered during the pandemic. It found that by June 70 per cent of families on universal credit had to cut back on food and other essentials during lockdown, while 60 per cent had to borrow money to stay afloat.

The Cooking Champions food bank in Grange Park, north London © Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty

Poverty campaigners say standard universal credit payments may just about cover basic outgoings, but one-off payments such as buying school uniforms can throw a family into crisis.

Kathleen Kerridge knows this from experience. Before the 2008 financial crisis, she was “doing absolutely fine” but then she and her husband were made redundant and faced a major health crisis. Because her partner accepted the first job he was offered, on minimum wage, neither of her children were eligible for free school meals and the family of six was left with £150 a month to spend on food. 

“A pound was a lot of money — it could buy me two packets of smart price spaghetti and a can of tomatoes. Having that school meals entitlement would have made a huge difference,” she said.

Now a food poverty campaigner she added: “A lot of people are now going to be finding themselves in the exact situation we were in — they’re going to suddenly be looking at their finances and saying: Hang on, how are we going to live?”

With redundancies rising at their sharpest rate since 2009, a growing number of people are turning to food banks to answer that question.

At the height of lockdown in May this year, the Independent Food Aid Network, which connects food banks around the country, distributed 177 per cent more emergency food parcels than the same month the previous year.

The spike resulted from the pandemic, but followed years of gradually increasing food bank use, which according to Trussell Trust, the UK's largest food bank network, has increased by 74 per cent in the last 5 years.

A 2019 report by IFAN concluded that food banks were “a post-2010 phenomenon”, coinciding with “the post-recession climate of austerity” that saw stringent cuts to welfare and public services in the UK.

Sabine Goodwin, the co-ordinator of IFAN, said the expansion of free school meals and uplift in universal credit benefit were crucial in tackling food poverty, but were “sticking plasters themselves”.

Action on root causes, including welfare reform, low wages and insecure work, is now necessary to tackle food poverty for good, she said.

“The answer is not in continually providing temporary relief and more emergency food parcels,” she said. “Now is the time to start talking the longer term.”

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