EXTENDING FREE SCHOOL MEALS IS A NECESSARY FIRST STEP TOWARDS ENDING FOOD POVERTY

Wednesday was a watershed moment for this country in the COVID-19 pandemic. In a year when we have seen one-third of families in this country suffer a reduction in their income, one million lose their jobs and a 250% rise in food poverty, when it came to ensuring that all of our children are fed, the UK Government said no.

This, as the wonderful Marcus Rashford has consistently highlighted in the past months, is no political point. It is a humanitarian crisis and one that 322 MPs are turning a blind eye to.

“It is not for schools to provide food to pupils during the school holidays,” claimed Downing Street ahead of this week’s crucial vote on whether to extend the free school meals programme over half-term and the Christmas holidays. This is a wilful misrepresentation of Rashford and the Child Food Poverty Taskforce’s argument, and one that I would make as well.

No, it is not the responsibility of the schools, it is the responsibility of the state and one that it is shirking.

The argument from government ministers is that such an extension would lead to an over-reliance on the state and that Universal Credit would suffice in supporting families in the months to come. It will not. In response to MP Ben Bradley, Rashford pointed out the horrifying fact that 1.5 million children do not qualify for Universal Credit support, as it is limited to families with two children or fewer.

In the same tweet, Rashford said the one thing I disagree: “Nobody is pointing fingers.” Throughout his campaigning, he has been nothing but polite and courteous to the very politicians who reject his activism. I will not be.

I am pointing the finger: not just at this specific Government — who made a sensible U-turn on the same policy in the summer — but at the structural inequalities built into British society that mean the concept of feeding children is questioned in the first place. A society that deems it acceptable to give its citizens 50% off junk food meals in August to power the economy, but will not pay for one meal a day for suffering children.

Perhaps the worst comment came from MP for Bassetlaw, Brendan Clarke-Smith who said: “I do not believe in nationalising children. Instead, we need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility, and that means less celebrity virtue-signalling on Twitter by proxy and more action to tackle the real causes of child poverty.”

Not only does this downplay the phenomenal work of Rashford who has raised millions for food charities and forced the government to provide free school meals during the summer, but it disrespects children who through no fault of their own, will not be able to eat sufficiently this winter.

These are the children of this nation and the state must take responsibility for their wellbeing. When Mr Clarke-Smith says more action must be taken to “tackle the real causes of child poverty,” I do agree that extending the free school meal scheme is a temporary sticking plaster for an open wound, but where are the solutions for the structural inequalities that have led to this?

The welfare system does not adequately serve everyone, not just those out of work but many who must work two jobs — both on minimum wage — and can still barely afford to put food on their children’s plates. Our society is broken and sadly until these deep-rooted issues are addressed, there must be the compassion from Government to say: “Our citizens need help, let us do what we can.”

Without this, communities must rely on the generosity of campaigners and charities like Marcus Rashford and FareShare, or businesses who choose to step up to the plate.

At Mercato Metropolitano, we believe, advocate and work to provide food for communities in line with our MManifesto. Firstly, we believe that people have an absolute right to food. This means every individual should have physical and economic access at all times to sufficient, adequate and culturally acceptable food that is produced and consumed sustainably, and that ensures food for future generations.

Secondly, we believe in food as it should be: healthy, balanced diets based on food that is natural and simply prepared. This means that every product should aim to have no more than five ingredients and that every ingredient should be easy to understand.

These values are fundamental human rights that millions of Britons are denied, and so through a number of classes, clubs and community initiatives, we provide affordable and healthy produce to London’s food insecure.

Behind every dish, menu and recipe at MM there is research. We carefully design healthy, well-balanced and nutritional meals — carefully selected and planned by teams of nutritionists, sourcing and sustainability experts. Our onboarding process trains each of our new traders to follow this ethos and only serve food that lives up to these standards.

This is all supported by our affordable eating initiatives: £5 daily lunch meal deals with each of our vendors, educational cooking classes, emergency food bags and a holiday provision programme.

I call this approach ‘supportive development’. Our objectives centre around what we as a business can do for individuals in our local area to ensure their livelihoods — both the community around us and the partners we work with. As a living wage employer, all MM staff and those of our vendors are paid the London Living Wage.

Over the past decade or so we have seen an increase in businesses that are taking on social responsibility and supporting people. Not enough, sure, but purposeful companies are far more mainstream than they were before the 2008 financial crash.

The sales growth of consumer-focused B Corps (companies certified as having and delivering on a positive purpose) in 2012–17 was 49 per cent compared with 15 per cent for their non-certified equivalents — and B Corps attract twice as many applicants for jobs. Apart from it being the right thing to do, there is a financial imperative to be purposeful.

But purpose is not the responsibility of businesses alone. Firstly, too many merely virtue signal positive intent while continuing to destroy the planet, exploit their employees and line the pockets of shareholders. They have to be held to account.

But if our governments lack in purpose — if they continue to protect corporations from paying the taxes that benefit society, if they continue to award public service contracts based on nepotism rather than merit, if they continue to not only allow businesses to operate with disregard for the planet but fail to punish them for it — then what hope can we have of true societal change?

Change is a partnership and this is something Marcus Rashford understands. It would have been easy for him to turn on politicians and openly deride their ignorance, just as some mock him as a virtue signalling multi-millionaire. But instead, he responds with courteousness and eloquence to all who question him — providing facts that highlight in simple terms, the urgency of the problem he wants to solve.

And why? Because he knows he cannot do this alone. He needs the Government as a partner, not an enemy; because no matter how much money one person, one charity or one business makes, without a government that leads by example and cares for its citizens, then any initiative will simply be a sticking plaster.

For us at MM, we feel our initiatives are more than just temporary measures. We have ingrained ourselves into our community and are a long-term resource for those who need healthy and affordable food. But our work from our main site on Elephant & Castle will not mean that we alone can end food insecurity in Southwark — a borough in which 40% of children live in poverty.

We therefore do not work in a silo — we work to engage with partners and ambassadors from across our borough, London and the UK to bring an end to food insecurity. Perhaps one day, there will be no-one left who needs to be fed by our schemes. If that is ever the case, then our job is done.

It is exactly the same approach that the Government must take. It must look at its population and see who is suffering and say, how can we alleviate this? This involves temporary measures like extending free meals in the school holidays, and long-term policy changes such as the expansion of Universal Credit, the introduction of a real living wage or a universal basic income.

It also involves strategic partnerships with business and civil society. Working with those campaigning to make things better — whether it is an activist like Marcus Rashford or a business like Mercato Metropolitano. It must also incentivise businesses who deliver on their purpose, while ensuring that those who don’t, pay their fair share.

Brendan Clarke-Smith says we must “tackle the real causes of child poverty” rather than take temporary measures on school meals. He is right. But showing a willingness to compromise and do what is in plain terms — the morally right thing, just as it was over the summer — will be the first step to tackling those problems. The longer this government refuses to seriously engage on this issue, the longer it will be until those root causes are too, addressed.

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Andrea Rasca

Founder & Chief Executive Dreamer, Mercato Metropolitano. A global movement driving sustainable food development to tackle the world’s biggest societal issues