Marcus Rashford has joined celebrity chefs and charities in calling for a wider review into the government’s free school meals policy.
They have signed a letter to Boris Johnson, urging him to “reform the system for the longer term”.
It says the issue “risks once again becoming divisive”, adding: “It is only by working together that we end child food poverty.”
It comes after another row over free school meals for February half-term.
The government has said food will be provided to children by councils under the Covid Winter Grant Scheme, while schools are closed for the holiday.
But councils and unions say the government should provide food vouchers instead, with the Local Government Association’s Councillor Richard Watts telling BBC Radio 4’s PM programme the grant had already been allocated for other support.
As well as getting the backing of Rashford – who has led campaigns around child poverty over the course of the pandemic – the letter has been signed by chefs Jamie Oliver, Tom Kerridge and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, along with actor Dame Emma Thompson and over 40 charities and education leaders.
Organised by the Food Foundation charity, the letter said there needed to be an “urgent comprehensive review into free school meal policy across the UK” to feed into the government’s next Spending Review.
The signatories praised the Department for Education’s “swift response” to reports earlier this week of inadequate food parcels sent to families, saying the “robustness of the message from you and the Secretary of State on this issue was very welcome”.
But, they added, “following the series of problems which have arisen over school food vouchers, holiday provision and food parcels since the start of the pandemic”, now was the time for a review.
‘Vital next step’
The letter makes specific calls to look into the eligibility threshold for children to qualify, to explore whether disadvantaged children are being excluded, and to consider how the policy can deliver “the biggest nutritional and educational impact”.
The signatories want a review to be published and debated in Parliament before the 2021 summer holidays.
“We are ready and willing to support your government in whatever way we can to make this review a reality and to help develop a set of recommendations that everyone can support,” the letter said.
“School food is essential in supporting the health and learning of our most disadvantaged children.
“Now, at a time when children have missed months of in-school learning and the pandemic has reminded us of the importance of our health, this is a vital next step.”