Free school meals: We need a rethink about how our institutions treat those suffering hardship

André Langlois. Ref mhh 44 18TI 3990. Picture: Terry Ife

André Langlois. Ref mhh 44 18TI 3990. Picture: Terry Ife - Credit: Archant

Marcus Rashford may be an England international but it’s worth remembering that a large proportion of the country really don’t like Manchester United. Yet he has brought the country together in a way Boris, Keir, Ed, Sian et al can only dream of.

Stock image of children eating lunch. Picture Brent Council

Stock image of children eating lunch. Picture Brent Council - Credit: Archant

Over the weekend the Conservative figures acknowledged that the party has “misjudged the mood of the nation”, which is odd because it’s only a few months ago that it last misjudged the mood of the nation - over exactly the same issue.

The government has sought to defend its position on school meals, saying it is finding councils to support families in need (exactly how much of the work councils are doing is being properly funded is another issue).

At the same time Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis praised businesses offering to provide free meals to children, saying they are “complementary’ to what the government is doing. It’s not entirely clear why, if the government is asserting it is doing enough. Surely those businesses are wasting their money? Or are they needed because people are swapping their sandwiches for drugs as two Conservative MPs suggested?

Whatever the best approach to supporting families throughout this crisis (and beyond - poverty didn’t arrive with coronavirus), the continued demonisation of people on the breadline is a stain on the country and tars the party that Boris would really like to be known as the champion of industry and entrepreneurship.

The narratives of “benefit scroungers”, “rough sleepers just spend your change on drugs” and “they swap meal vouchers for drugs”, as well as the “hostile environment” immigration policy, are all, well, nasty.

The response of communities to the pandemic and the groundswell behind Mr Rashford’s campaign are evidence of a need for a shift in how our institutions view those who are struggling.

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And this government needs to pay attention.