Scores of councils have pledged to feed disadvantaged children over the school holidays as they joined a wave of public support for a campaign led by the England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford.
Amid growing outrage over the government’s refusal to extend free school meals in England next week, Conservative-controlled Kensington and Chelsea council and Birmingham city council, the UK’s biggest local authority, were among those stepping into the breach.
A groundswell of cafes, businesses, charities and community groups also said they would donate food during half-term next week and over the Christmas holidays, inspired by Rashford’s campaign to end child food poverty.
The 22-year-old’s Twitter feed highlighted a flood of offers to help amid the economic crisis caused by the Covid pandemic. His petition to implement a national food strategy had more than 600,000 signatures on Friday night.
The government is understood to be preparing for a partial climbdown amid the row, with an expansion of children’s access to holiday activity clubs including meals.
But local government sources told the Guardian the plans were being held up by the Treasury ahead of its spending review. Last year about 50,000 disadvantaged children used the holiday activities and food scheme across just 17 local authorities.
Official figures from earlier this year showed 1.4 million disadvantaged children were eligible for free school meals in England. That number is estimated to have risen by hundreds of thousands since the coronavirus outbreak, and may now be closer to 2 million.
In the summer, following a campaign by Rashford, who has spoken of benefiting from free school meals when he was growing up in Manchester, the government U-turned and agreed to provide £15-a-week vouchers to ensure children did not go hungry during the holidays.
With schools since reopened, a motion to repeat the move was voted down in the Commons on Wednesday despite the precarious economy and rising unemployment. On Thursday, the chancellor unveiled a multibillion-pound package to support businesses and low-paid workers during the crisis.
With days to go, England will be alone among the UK nations in not extending free school meals support over the half-term holiday. Scotland and Wales have pledged to offer free meals through Christmas and Easter as well.
Robert Halfon, the Tory MP chair of the Commons education committee, urged ministers to meet Rashford and the child food poverty taskforce to discuss solutions to childhood hunger.
“What the government should do is sit down with Marcus Rashford and the taskforce … there’s people like Henry Dimbleby [co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain] and some of the big food companies – and before Christmas work on a long-term plan to combat child food hunger,” Halfon said.
Halfon was one of five Tory MPs to vote in favour of Labour’s motion, saying he supported more provision of breakfast clubs, funded through the £340m sugar tax.
“If the government wants to look at it in terms of taxpayer cost-benefit and attainment, breakfast clubs are a no-brainer. If a child gets a regular breakfast it increases their attainment by as much as two more GCSEs and attendance goes up,” Halfon said.
While nearly 40 Labour-run councils rushed to set up food schemes in time for half-term in the wake of this week’s parliamentary vote, most Conservative councils were reluctant to join – partly on cost grounds and because the issue was in danger of becoming, as one source put it, “party political”.
The London borough of Kensington and Chelsea was a rare outlier, promising £15 food vouchers over half-term for its 3,300 local children eligible for free school meals. Councillor Josh Rendall, the lead member for family and children’s services, said: “This is not a long-term solution but this is an exceptional year and we know it has been a tough one for many families.”
Conservative-controlled Essex became the first county council to support Rashford, announcing the expansion of a holiday hunger programme and an emergency fund for food banks facing higher demand. It stopped short of promising support for all free school meal-registered children.
Many councils appeared to be dipping into reserves despite financial pressures, shuffling cash between budgets or using the remnants of their share of a £63m hardship fund set up by the government earlier this year to pay for the schemes.
Labour-run Lewisham council in south London, where there has been a 13% rise in free school meal registrations since March, pledged to use £19,000 from its crowdfunded Packed Lunch Half Term appeal to provide meals for 12,500 local children.
Nick Forbes, Newcastle city council leader and leader of the Local Government Association Labour Group, said: “Children should never be left to go to be hungry - the fact that this Conservative government can’t see that shows it has completely lost its moral compass.
“They have wasted millions on high-paid consultants and have given billions to Serco to run a test-and-trace system that doesn’t work, but they draw the line at using a tiny fraction of that to prevent children going hungry this half-term. It is sickening.”
Barnsley council’s leader, Sir Stephen Houghton, said: “We can’t get a voucher system running at this late stage but we will make sure local families on free school meals get money over the next week. And as the government have said they aren’t going to do anything, we are going to start preparing for the Christmas holidays.”
Birmingham city council also pledged to provide food vouchers to the 61,000 eligible children within the city.
Downing Street repeatedly declined to praise businesses or councils that were offering free meals to disadvantaged children over half-term, saying only that it did not believe free school meals were needed outside term.
“As we’ve set out before, we’re in a different position now, with schools back open to all and the vast majority of pupils back in school,” a No 10 spokesman said. “As the prime minister said, free school meals will continue during term-time, and he wants to continue to support families throughout the crisis, so they have cash available to feed kids as they need to.”
Pressed over whether the government supported such offers, or believed they were not a good use of money, the spokesman refused to say. “We’re in a different position now, with schools back open. But we have done a lot to make sure the most vulnerable in our society are protected,” he said. “While schools continue to play an integral role in the community, it’s not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during school holidays.”