I, like many of my friends, seem to have spent the latter part of this week in a state of rising fury: first ignited by the government’s decision not to extend the provision of free school meals to families in need over the holidays and then fanned by the increasingly terrible excuses for their decisions. This high profile campaign to help families through a period of unprecedented need has been spearheaded by professional footballer Marcus Rashford, who was given an MBE for services to vulnerable children only a couple of weeks ago. 322 MPS voted against. Some abstained. One MP resigned after defying the Tory whip and voting for the bill.
“Speaking to BBC Breakfast about being made an MBE, Rashford said: “It’s a nice moment for me personally but I feel like I’m still at the beginning of the journey that I set out to try to achieve. I think what I would like to do now that I’m in this position is just speak directly to the prime minister and really ask for the vouchers to be extended until at least October half-term because I think that’s what the families need.”
Rashford is right: families need food.
There’s the usual self-righteous bleating about ‘poor families’ spending their vouchers on unhealthy food, about ‘absent parents’ needing to ‘take responsibility’ for their children, even – against all evidence – that children were being helped by the government pumping money (a ‘pledged’ £9bn) into the welfare system. That feeding needy families is ‘nationalising children’. The ‘uplift’ for universal credit claimants of £20 a week amounts to £1000 a year – and that’s £1000 they won’t have next year. Food has also become more expensive this year, so how far does £20 a week go to feed a family of five? There’s two of us working in this family, and there is still a lot of pasta, omelette and corned beef hash at the end of the month.
Well, here’s the thing; according to the Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food poverty charity, the huge surge in demand for foodbank use can be explicitly linked to the introduction of universal credit. With a five-week wait for the first payment, people are expected to survive on air, and when you have kids that really isn’t an option.
Here’s another thing: ‘unhealthy’ food is often cheap food, and it’s easy food, and in more and more cases the people claiming universal credit are not Waynetta Slobs sitting on their arses all day, smoking a fag and watching daytime TV. They are families where both parents are working, often full time, and they still can’t make ends meet. And they are tired. They come home from work and the last thing they want is to start peeling bloody carrots and whipping up a Jamie Oliver-approved vegetable-stuffed spag bol.
Free school meals are a lifeline, because they know that at least one meal that day is taken care of, it’s a hot meal and so they can perhaps get away with something smaller in the evening. This year – when the government has forced closure on businesses and expected people to survive on 80% of the wages they couldn’t survive on before – it’s been even more of a lifeline. The persistent Tory prejudice that people are on free school meals because they are single parents is deeply, deeply offensive, as is the idea that single parenthood is some sort of stigma.
I had coffee last week with a friend who works in a Tower Hamlets primary school and she told me that not one but two food banks were active in their school. Gone are the days when the food collected at Harvest Festival would be sent to the local old people’s home: now, increasingly, they are going back to children in the school. Food bank collections used to be a Christmas event, now the crates are next to the tills in every supermarket.
Before I moved into museums I was a teacher in Tower Hamlets and Hackney, in the days before universal school meals for primary school children in Tower Hamlets and for KS1 everywhere else. One of my clearest memories was opening a child’s lunchbox for him and finding a crust of bread with margarine, and nothing else. His sister had the other crust. This child’s mother worked and didn’t qualify for free school meals, but there was no other support. Both children were on the verge of malnutrition but social services were so stretched that they were slipping through the net. Another child used to sneak into the classroom at breaktime and search for food to eat. We would save the milk from the nursery and send it to other classrooms. Free fruit at playtime was a start, free meals were even better.
Back then, those children were the exception. Now schools are dedicating chunks of their ever-decreasing budgets to providing many more children with food parcels, with clean clothes, with helping parents to fill in forms to claim benefits so they can get help. Period poverty, in 21st century Britain, is a thing: girls missing school every month as they can’t afford pads.
I pray that every selfish decision by our current selection of MPs is another nail in the Tory coffin. I am not suggesting that Labour is the answer, but I believe it’s time the people in charge start caring for the people they are in charge of. And thank you to those in the hospitality business who are among the hardest-hit this year, who are stepping up and feeding people anyway.
It is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it… anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.Douglas Adams
The rest of the week
It seems a bit reductive to now turn to everything else this week, really, but it might help me calm down a bit after that rant!
I have FINALLY finished the Coast blanket, which I am telling myself I started four years ago but I suspect it might be five. I have even woven in the ends, and never have I congratulated myself more for at least starting to do this as I went along.
The tiny squares of the Zoom blanket are piling up, and all the remnant balls from the Coast blanket will be added to that – I WILL get through the stash.
Next up will be the Hydrangea Blanket, also by Attic 24, although I am thinking about making a wrap rather than the whole blanket as – apparently – we have enough blankets. Is that even a thing?
And that’s me for the week. Half term is here and my beloved has most of the week off, so I will be the one in the very dusty classrooms decanting the learning collection. Let’s see what treasures week 32 brings!
What I’ve been reading:
The Zig Zag Girl/Smoke and Mirrors (Stephens and Mephisto series) – Elly Griffiths
Saturnalia/Alexandria (Falco) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)