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Feed the kids – feed the nation

It’s better for everyone, rich and poor alike, if all children are well fed and their parents don’t have to cut meals themselves in order to try and provide for their families, says Laura Marcus.

Feeding hungry children isn’t just good for them – it’s good for us all…

So they voted to keep kids hungry. Feeding children during the school holidays increases their dependency insisted Manfield’s Tory MP Ben Bradley. Probably the most crass contribution to the debate among many crass, cruel and callous contributions. Another Tory MP Brendan Clarke-Smith said it was nationalising children if they were fed properly during the school holidays.

On and on it went as one Conservative MP after another tried to find a good reason not to feed hungry children. Who knew kids needed feeding in school holidays as well as term time? And since all food eventually becomes waste, what’s the point? Children are never too young to learn that they must stand on their own two feet. If they were stupid enough to be born into poverty, that’s their look out. We all have a choice don’t we?

Of course it wasn’t remotely surprising Tories took the opportunity granted by Labour to demonstrate they remain what former Tory prime minster Theresa May once called them: The Nasty Party. But let’s give credit to just five Tory MPs who defied the whip and voted with Labour to extend free school meals into the holidays. One of them was Caroline Ansell, MP for Eastbourne and Willingdon, who resigned as a Parliamentary aide for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

As this was an Opposition Day debate there was never any hope nor expectation it could be won. And in any event motions tabled on opposition days are not seen as binding on the government. So even if Labour had won the government could’ve ignored it.

So what was the point? Up against an 80-seat majority and MPs very loyal to the party whip, a party that sticks together because all it ever cares about is power, why bother? To embarrass the government and hope it again U-Turns as it did in the summer following the campaign by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford? Perhaps. Maybe to try to grind the government down and give it ample opportunity to demonstrate how tin eared it is, how unfeeling, how uncaring.

That’s really all an opposition can ever do up against the juggernaut of a massive majority and a narcissistic prime minister devoid of empathy. After all Boris Johnson says struggling to survive on his prime minister’s salary of £150,000 a year is next door to impossible. His previous Telegraph column paying his £250,000 a year salary, he called “chicken feed”. So how can he possibly relate to children going hungry? This man who doesn’t even know how many children he has.

“Put aside all the noise, the digs, the party politics, and let’s focus on the reality. A significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today,” Rashford commented after scoring the winning goal in his team’s stoppage-time penalty against Paris St-Germain in the Champion’s League.

The Labour motion was defeated by 322 votes to 261, government majority 61. A government that only a few weeks ago gave 22-year-old Rashford an MBE for his services fighting child poverty. Virtue signalling at its very worst. Here, have a bauble but of course we’re not going to feed the hungry! What d’you expect? We’re Tories! It’s not what we do.

Yet we all benefit if children are properly fed says Rashford: “The economy already pays a high price for child hunger. If children were fed properly you would increase educational attainment and boost life chances. Kelloggs UK and Ireland calculated we would spend at least £5.2M a year on lost teaching hours as teachers are caring for hungry kids.”

And that is the point behind the bluster. Feed the kids; feed the nation. Never mind creating dependency or the so-called “something for nothing” society Tories dread when that something goes to the poorest, but love it when it goes to their already rich mates. It’s better for everyone, rich and poor alike, if all children are well fed and their parents provided with a safety net so they don’t lose sleep or have to cut meals themselves in order to try and provide for their kids. Of course, there are feckless parents. Of course, there are kids who go hungry not because they come from a poor home but a poorly-managed one. So what? Is it right we punish the kids for having crap parents?

Time and again we heard the argument on Wednesday night in the Commons chamber and outside that it’s the responsibility of parents to feed their own kids, not the state’s. Bullshit. We’re all responsible for taking care of children whether we have them or not (and by the way I don’t). All adults owe a duty of care to the next generation. Why? Because they cannot take care of themselves and sometimes parents need a helping hand, especially during Covid with an ever-increasing number of areas facing lockdown, loss of income and a benefit system full of holes.

We try to do what we can as individuals but in the end we can only act collectively and that takes state aid. It isn’t even a selfless act to feed everyone. It’s one of huge self interest. We’re all better off when everyone gets properly fed and no one goes hungry. Devolved governments in Scotland and Wales recognise this and will be feeding children during the holidays. Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly is yet to make a final decision. But English kids are stuck with the decisions of a cruel government.

Going to bed hungry is something no one should have to face, least of all a child powerless to do anything about it. Hunger gnaws away at you. You can’t concentrate on anything, you feel dizzy, disorientated, unable to focus on anything except food and your overwhelming need for it. Ask any teacher what it’s like trying to teach hungry children. That’s why the government provides free school meals for the most needy.

And it’s why it will probably do another U-Turn before Christmas. Why U-Turn when it voted it down yesterday? Because it couldn’t be seen to back a Labour motion. That never happens. But the government will want to look as if it listened, it cares, it’s doing the right thing. I believe if we keep the pressure up the government will change its mind, do the right thing and make sure all kids get fed this Christmas.

How many children get free school meals?

* In England, about 1.3 million children claimed for free school meals in 2019 – 15% of state-educated pupils.

* The take-up was greatest in parts of London, the north of England and the Midlands where between a quarter and a third of all pupils were receiving them.

* In Manchester, where Mr Rashford grew up, the figure was 28.1%.

* Analysis by the Food Foundation, commissioned for Mr Rashford’s campaign, estimates a further 900,000 children in England may have sought free school meals since the start of the pandemic.

Source: BBC.

Child poverty facts and figures

* There were 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2018-19.

* 44% of children living in lone-parent families are in poverty.

* Children from black and minority ethnic groups are more likely to be in poverty: 46% compared with 26% of children in White British families.

* Work does not provide a guaranteed route out of poverty in the UK. 72% of children growing up in poverty live in a household where at least one person works.

Source: Child Poverty Action Group, after housing costs. July 2020.

Photo credit: Oliver Twist

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Laura Marcus

Laura Marcus is a freelance journalist and broadcaster.

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