Footballer Marcus Rashford said he “could not be more proud to call myself British” as he praised local communities for stepping in to provide free meals to children during the school holidays.
The England star’s pride comes as councils, including Tory-run bodies, announced half-term stop-gap measures and a Conservative mayor criticised the Government’s “last-minute” decision-making on children’s free meals funding.
Rashford, 22, said he is “truly overwhelmed” by the support his campaign has received, after Parliament rejected proposals to provide free meals to vulnerable children during the school holidays.
The striker’s online petition had garnered more than 600,000 signatures on Friday night.
Rashford’s viral campaign came after MPs rejected a bid from Labour, backed by the footballer, to extend free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021.
Among the businesses and organisations around the country who offered free food were tea rooms, churches, farms and takeaways.
In a statement to BBC Newsnight, Rashford said: “Growing up we didn’t have a lot, but we always had the safety net of the community.
“That community was my family.
“When we stumbled, we were caught with open arms.
“Even at their lowest point, having felt the devastating effects of the pandemic, local businesses have wrapped arms around their communities today, catching vulnerable children as they fell.
“I couldn’t be more proud to call myself British tonight.
“I am truly overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.
“You want to talk about ‘celebrities’ and ‘superstars’, look no further than my Twitter feed and that’s exactly what you’ll find.”
West Midlands Tory mayor Andy Street said the Government should make “a clear decision” on whether it would or would not fund free school meals over holidays “well in advance”.
“It should not be a last-minute thing, this should be planned for, there should be a national approach on this,” he said, adding that the lack of planning meant there was now an “indiscriminate arrangement” across the country as to whether free school meals would be provided over the break.
Tory-run Kensington and Chelsea council said it will pay for free school meals for eligible pupils in the borough during next week’s half-term.
The council said almost 3,300 youngsters will receive £15 vouchers from their schools to cover the cost of meals during the holiday, equal to the value of £3 per day for the lunchtime meal they would receive if in school.
Other Tory-controlled councils getting on board include Hillingdon, Medway and Wandsworth councils.
The Labour leader of Birmingham City Council pledged to provide 61,000 eligible youngsters with meals in a scheme which will cost the local authority between £800,000 and £1 million, and the mayor of Liverpool said he was “not prepared to stand by and watch”, as he announced £300,000 of funding.
Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson and Liverpool City Council have set up a JustGiving page to raise money, expressing their determination “that no child shall go hungry this October half-term”.
McDonald’s UK has also offered support to families, with the fast-food chain tweeting: “We are proud to announce a partnership with Fare Share UK to provide one million meals for families in need.
“Our funding will enable the urgent redistribution of meals across the next couple of weeks to those in greatest need.”
Downing Street declined to praise such outlets offering to provide free meals for vulnerable children over half-term.
A Number 10 spokesman, asked repeatedly if the Prime Minister welcomed the offer from businesses and some councils, said: “As we have set out before, we are in a different position now with schools back open to all and the vast majority of pupils back to school.
“I believe the PM said during PMQs that free school meals will continue during term time and that he wants to continue to support families throughout the crisis so they have cash available to feed kids if they need to.”
Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who voted in support of extending free school meal provision, called on Boris Johnson to meet Rashford to come up with a long-term strategy, calling such a get-together a “no-brainer”.
The education select committee chairman told BBC Breakfast: “It may be that they don’t agree with everything that Marcus Rashford is proposing, but it would give us a chance to come up with a long-term plan to combat child food hunger once and for all.”
Meanwhile there has been a call for an apology from Tory MP Ben Bradley after he sent a tweet which prompted accusations that he was stigmatising working class families.
The MP for Mansfield replied to a tweet in which another user described the free school meals programme as “£20 cash direct to a crack den and a brothel”, with the Tory writing: “That’s what FSM vouchers in the summer effectively did…”
Mr Bradley later claimed the tweet had been taken out of context, telling BBC Breakfast he was trying to say that giving children who live in “chaotic” situations an “unrestricted voucher to spend on whatever isn’t helpful”.
But Labour MPs have pointed out the vouchers in summer could only be used to buy food.
Rashford, described as a “hero of our times” by musician and fellow Mancunian Tim Burgess, will be back at his day job later as Manchester United play a home game against Chelsea.
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