Marcus Rashford takes aim at child food poverty with new taskforce

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Manchester United forward outlines plans to build on free school meals victory in letter to MPs

Three months after he forced a government U-turn on summer holiday school meal vouchers, Marcus Rashford has set his sights on a bigger target: the end of child food poverty in Britain.

After MPs scrambled to line up behind the charismatic young Manchester United footballer and political activist, it is now the turn of the food industry.

In a letter to MPs released on Tuesday morning, Rashford unveiled a “child food poverty taskforce” he has formed with brands including Aldi, Tesco, Deliveroo and Kellogg’s, set out three major new policy goals, and issued a rallying cry for long-lasting change.

“Food poverty is contributing to social unrest,” he wrote, reflecting on a series of recent meetings with families in need of the same support he counted on as a child. He described “watching a young boy keeping it together whilst his mother sobbed alongside him, feeling like he has to step up to protect his family and alleviate some of that worry. He was nine years old.”

“I know that feeling,” he wrote. “I remember the sound of my mum crying herself to sleep to this day, having worked a 14-hour shift, unsure how she was going to make ends meet. That was my reality.”

The ambitious plan that Rashford sets out calls on the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to fund the implementation of three key policy recommendations from the national food strategy, a government-commissioned report highlighting huge economic and health inequalities, which will be aggravated by the coronavirus crisis. The proposals are backed by Aldi, Co-op, Deliveroo, Iceland, Kellogg’s, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose, and the charities FareShare and the Food Foundation.

“Mothers and fathers are raising respectful, eloquent young men and women, who, in reality, are part of a system that will not allow them the opportunity to win and succeed,” Rashford wrote. “Add school closures, redundancies and furloughs into the equation and we have an issue that could negatively impact generations to come. It all starts with stability around access to food.”

While the food strategy – written by Leon founder Henry Dimbleby – was commissioned by the government, ministers have not yet said they will act on its recommendations. The three points highlighted by Rashford are the expansion of free school meals to every child whose family is on universal credit, an expansion of holiday provision to all children on free school meals, and a significant boost to the value of Healthy Start vouchers for families with young children.

The footballer, who is working in partnership with FareShare and the Food Foundation, said in his letter that the progress made by his previous victory on free school meals “was only ever going to support this issue in the short-term”. And he said a recent visit to the Evelyn Community Store in Deptford, south-east London had redoubled his commitment to the cause.

“I spoke to a mother recently who, along with her two young sons, is currently living off three slices of bread a day – soaking them in hot water and adding sugar, hoping that the porridge consistency might better sustain the hunger of her one-year old child,” he wrote. “This is the true reality of England in 2020.”

Rashford is understood to have devoted much of his brief off-season to his work on food poverty – visiting food banks, working to create his new coalition with the food industry, and calling his co-workers on the project for updates as often as four times a day.

Shortly after his visit to the Evelyn Community Store, he convened a Zoom call with supermarket leaders to agree the taskforce plan. As well as backing the national food strategy goals, members of the group agreed to use their social media platforms to share the stories of some of those facing food poverty to raise public awareness of the issue.

One of those on the call told the Guardian: “He’s formidable. This is obviously the right thing to do, but I think for some people, it doesn’t hurt that you don’t want to get on the wrong side of Marcus Rashford.”

Henry Dimbleby said that the three recommendations endorsed in Rashford’s letter were chosen because “we need pace, and we need it to be deliverable – these are things which exist and which we can ramp up”.

“To be well-nourished is the foundation of opportunity,” he added. “Any government serious about levelling up will ensure the most disadvantaged children have access to food.” He pointed to growing evidence of a new crisis in food poverty for young people brought about by coronavirus, with the number of people using food banks doubling in just a few months and the vast majority of new users being young people with dependent children.

Natasha Ricketts, a volunteer at the Evelyn Community Store – which is supplied with food by FareShare– described Rashford as “an absolutely lovely guy. It’s massive, for a young guy to take on such a big task. He’s very humble, very down-to-earth, and it wasn’t that long ago that he was one of those kids himself.”

Dimbleby agreed that Rashford had a vital role. “Having people whose own lived experiences inform their work lead the way is just so important,” he said. “Behind the scenes he’s doing all sorts of things he’s not even talking about.”

Ricketts warned that it was not yet clear whether politicians and business would commit to following his lead in the long term. “But if not, they will have to answer why,” she said. “And that is the power of his voice.”

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