Free school meals: Thousands of doctors call for government U-turn

Fiona Simpson
Monday, October 26, 2020

Thousands of doctors have urged Boris Johnson to extend free school meals over holidays as half-term begins.

Marcus Rashford visits a food bank in Manchester. Picture: FareShare/Twitter
Marcus Rashford visits a food bank in Manchester. Picture: FareShare/Twitter

An open letter to the Prime Minister, signed by more than 2,000 paediatricians, argues that “childhood hunger is an issue that should transcend politics, good nutrition is at the heart of health, wellbeing and development for children and young people”.

It notes that without access to regular healthy meals, “children’s health outcomes worsen, and with that, so do their life chances”.

The letter states: “More than four million children in the UK live in poverty and around one third of those are reliant on free school meals. 

The pandemic has entrenched and exacerbated this reality; families who were previously managing are now struggling to make ends meet because of the impact of Covid-19. It is not good enough to send them into the holiday period hoping for the best, while knowing that many will simply go hungry. Food vouchers will not solve this problem, but they offer a short-term remedy.”

It comes after Conservative MPs voted down a motion by the Labour Party to extend free school meals over school holidays until Easter 2021.

A high-profile campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford successfully forced a government U-turn over the issue during the summer term.

However, MPs including Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and children’s minister Vicky Ford backed government claims that it is “not the role of schools to provide food in the holidays”. 

Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said: “It is pointless to talk about levelling up the country, an ambition which we support, while refusing to offer temporary relief to children and families.”

“I've rarely seen such anger among our members. We care for children who don't have enough to eat. We see far too many of them. It is heartbreaking that it has become a normal part of our jobs and hunger is all too common for millions of families in the UK. There is an opportunity to put this right.”

Dr Liz Whittaker, consultant paediatrician at St. Marys Hospital, London added: “Household food insecurity is linked to long-term negative consequences for health, educational outcomes and future income. Missing meals isn’t just about going hungry on an individual day, it has a lasting impact on a young person’s life. Aside from the fact that it is wrong to see children go hungry, it is impossible to justify any argument that this saves the state money.”

Over the weekend, Rashford was inundated by messages from local authorities, including Conservative councils, and businesses pledging to feed disadvantaged children during half-term.

The England striker said he was "overwhelmed" by the support adding “I couldn’t be more proud to call myself British”.

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