Soccer star Rashford takes on UK leader over meals for needy kids

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was facing pressure yesterday to make a policy U-turn as opponents and allies alike rallied behind a young soccer star’s campaign to help families struggling with food poverty.
Marcus Rashford, who plays for Manchester United and England’s national team, wants the government to provide free meals for needy students over the summer holidays.
Rashford, 22, wrote an open letter to all of Britain’s lawmakers on Sunday, describing how, as one of five children of a hard-working single mother, “we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of neighbors and coaches.”
“A a black man from a low-income family in Wythenshawe, Manchester, I could have been just another statistic,” he wrote. “Instead, due to the selfless actions of my mum, my family, my neighbors, and my coaches, the only stats I’m associated with are goals, appearances and caps. I would be doing myself, my family and my community an injustice if I didn’t stand here today with my voice and my platform and ask you for help.”
About 1.3 million British children are eligible for free school meals. When schools were shut down in March as part of a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, a food voucher scheme was set up to help ensure they did not go hungry. Vouchers worth 15 pounds ($19) are available to spend each week in supermarkets.
The government plans to stop the voucher program when the scheduled school term ends in July in England and Northern Ireland, although authorities in Scotland and Wales plan to continue it.
So far, Johnson’s Conservative government has refused to budge, pointing out that it has earmarked an extra 63 million pounds ($80 million) for local authorities to support vulnerable families. Johnson’s spokesman said earlier that the prime minister planned to respond to Rashford’s letter, but hadn’t done so yet.
But Rashford’s campaign appeared to be picking up steam, backed by celebrities, opposition politicians and some Conservative lawmakers nervous that the government appears impervious to the struggles faced by many British families during the coronavirus pandemic.
Conservative legislator Robert Halfon, who chairs Parliament’s education committee, said after three months of a lockdown that has seen the British economy sink over 20% “so many people up and down the country are struggling to keep a roof over their heads and to feed their families.”
Halfon said the meal voucher program “is not a lot of extra money … but it’s simple, it works and the public understand it.”
The government is already facing intense criticism for its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Britain’s official death toll of more than 41,000 is the highest in Europe, and the government is defending itself against claims it had inadequate stocks of protective equipment, lacked testing capacity and put the country into lockdown too late, costing thousands of lives.
Rashford kept up the pressure yesterday, tweeting: “When you wake up this morning and run your shower, take a second to think about parents who have had their water turned off during lockdown.”
Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey replied saying: “Water cannot be disconnected though” — and was roundly criticized for such a tone-deaf response.
Rashford replied: “I’m concerned this is the only tweet of mine you acknowledged. Please, put rivalries aside for a second, and make a difference.” JILL LAWLESS, LONDON, AP

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