Education union calls for ‘urgent’action on school meals
By Peter Lazenby
EFFORTS to feeds hundreds of thousands of vulnerable schoolchildren continued today as the government refused to reverse its decision to deny them free meals during the October half-term break.
Protests multiplied outside the offices of Tory MPs who last Wednesday voted down a Labour proposal in the Commons to continue providing school meals or vouchers during the break, as happened over the summer.
Ministers said today that they are examining how holiday clubs could be used to feed hungry children in England in an effort to defuse the row.
The Holiday Activity and Food Programme by government food star and food-chain Leon co-founder Henry Dimbleby was trialled across 17 local authorities over the summer.
But Mr Dimbleby said the government “isn’t doing enough” to address the child hunger crisis and called for urgent action.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reported to be considering giving extra funds to councils to set up the clubs.
Today’s protests included the delivery of empty plates carrying messages shaming the MPs.
More than 80 protesters targeted the offices of South Thanet Tory MP Craig Mackinlay in Broadstairs in Kent delivering empty plates with slogans on them including: “Feed the Kids”, “Save A Quid and Starve the Kids”, “24.7% of Thanet’s Children Live In Poverty,” “There’s No Magic Dinner Tree” and “Eat Your Words Craig.”
Thanet Councillor Aram Rawf said: “As a child in wartime Iraq I knew what it was like to go without food.
“I never believed a wealthy civilised country like the UK could let children go hungry. Yet this is what I see in poor areas like Thanet where food banks are increasing and our MP has closed his eyes to the needs of the children in this area.
“Craig Mackinlay’s decision to vote against free school meals is shameful.”
Some schools have begun preparing to keep their school kitchens open to feed children during the Christmas break in December and January, with appeals for “an army of volunteers.”
The National Education Union (NEU) launched an open letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson calling upon him to provide free meals to all children who need them over the school holidays.
Signed by joint general secretaries Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, it says: “We write to you today because we believe action to counter food insecurity for children is urgent and can’t wait.
“The government must reverse the decision taken in the House of Commons last week not to provide free school meals over the holidays. Government cannot ignore the public outcry generated by this callous decision. They must ensure no child goes without food.”
The £150 million wasted on a single contract for useless personal protective equipment earlier in the pandemic would have paid for free school meals through to next year’s Easter holidays, said Labour.
The contract with private equity company Ayanda Capital resulted in the delivery of face masks that couldn’t be used by front-line healthcare workers.
Labour’s shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds said: “The Chancellor didn’t bat an eyelid when millions of pounds of public money were wasted on PPE that couldn’t be used.
“Yet when it comes to keeping kids fed this Christmas, he has nothing to offer but humbug.”
In the House of Lords today Labour Peer Lord Griffiths of Burry Port said: “I was in receipt of free meals throughout my entire school career.
“I remember very clearly, I can still taste and smell it, the mounting panic ahead of school holidays because the income we had could not stretch to feeding two boys and a mother in that day.
“An old Etonian, of course, can’t be expected to have had the same experience.”