Free school meals: Celebrities and campaigners step up pressure on prime minister over ‘chasm of injustice’

Chef Tom Kerridge is urging ministers to develop a strategy which could help end child food poverty

The ongoing campaign around free school meals highlights a “chasm of injustice”, food writer Jack Monroe has said as celebrity voices joined the growing criticism of the government's handling of the issue.

Ms Monroe highlighted the need for year-round food vouchers as the Department for Education said schools did not need to provide parcels or vouchers during the break as food would be provided by councils under the Covid Winter Grant Scheme (CWGS).

They told the PA news agency that the CWGS support for families over half-term is a “postcode lottery”, and that vouchers should instead be prioritised.

“The problem with the winter grant is that it’s been devolved to local councils, so it is a complete postcode lottery, there’s no consistency in how it’s applied,” they said.

“The vouchers and the free school meals were a level playing field.”

On Thursday, England and Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford stepped up the pressure on prime minister Boris Johnson, joining with TV chefs Jamie Oliver, Tom Kerridge, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the actress Dame Emma Thompson to press ministers to develop a strategy which could help end child food poverty.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, backed by more than 40 NGOs, charities and education leaders, they welcomed the “robustness” of his response to the “inadequate” meal parcels being provided by some private companies, but said it was the right time to “step back and review the policy in more depth”.

“This review would provide the Government with the opportunity to future-proof its policy on school food, and to carefully consider how best to support low-income children and families in the aftermath of the pandemic,” they said.

“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.”

Ms Monroe said they had received “thousands” of messages on Twitter from affected families since the announcement.

“The group of people who are now requiring food aid in this country is not just single mums on benefits anymore, it never was. It’s nurses who are using food banks, teachers, all sorts of people from all walks of life,” they said.

“There’s a yawning chasm of injustice, and people only ever seem to be furious about people on one end of it… while you’re staying angry at people who are genuinely suffering, you are not looking at the things which are wrong with the system.

“It’s more important that we just unite and focus, and say ‘how do we get these kids fed’. We can sort out political ideology and everything else afterwards.”

Councillor Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s Resources Board, said: “Government was explicit that CWGS was not intended to replicate or replace free school meals, but was to enable councils to support low income households, particularly those at risk of food poverty as we moved towards economic recovery.

Marcus Rashford has led the national debate over child hunger. Credit: PA

“Government should provide food vouchers to eligible families during February half-term as it did last summer, with councils using CWGS funding to provide additional support with partners where necessary.”

A government spokeswoman said: “As was the case over Christmas, vulnerable families will continue to receive meals and other essentials over February half-term via councils through the £170 million CWGS launched last year.

“Our guidance is clear: schools provide free school meals for eligible pupils during term time. Beyond that, there is wider government support in place to support families and children via the billions of pounds in welfare support we’ve made available.”