BUSINESSES are rallying behind the high-profile free school meals campaign by offering food parcels to those at risk of going hungry this half-term following the government’s decision not to extend holiday food vouchers.
Earlier this year, the government funded a voucher scheme for children of low-income families during the Easter holidays, and footballer Marcus Rashford’s crusade forced a government U-turn on provision over the summer holidays too.
But Labour’s recent motion to extend that policy further, until Easter 2021, was defeated by 261 votes to 322, with both New Forest MPs voting against.
Now dozens of local pubs, cafes and restaurants have now stepped up to the plate to help, and the Tory-led BCP Council is also offering food parcels.
Gordleton Mill, Rivaaz and the Wallhampton Arms in Lymington, Fordingbridge bakery The Cottage Loaf, The London Tavern, Café Aroma and Price’s Fish & Chips in Ringwood, and Bake in New Milton are among those businesses that are offering free lunches, either to collect or to eat in with dining parents.
BCP Council has announced it will be providing food parcels from today (Monday), with families in need urged to call the helpline.
“Anyone concerned about being able to feed their children or access food this half-term is invited to contact BCP Council on 0300 123 7052 for a free food parcel,” a spokesperson said.
Leader Cllr Drew Mellor said: “Local councils are the ones best placed to support families that find themselves struggling with food poverty in these difficult times.
“We’ve spent the last few days ensuring that our already established networks are stepped up, mobilising the extra colleagues we need to prepare the food parcels, co-ordinate distribution and staff our Together We Can helpline in readiness for additional calls.
“I am extremely proud of everybody’s efforts. We will do all we can to ensure that no child who needs food over the half term will go without, and would invite any family in receipt of free school meals or universal credit to get in touch. We have food parcels ready to go and will be distributing these across the area throughout the week.”
The Naked Pantry café in New Milton is running a ‘Pay it Forward’ scheme through its website, where the public can buy a meal for a child for £2.50.
“Every penny donated through this portal will be used to purchase ingredients and sup-plies to make these meals so our future doctors, shopkeepers, chefs, teachers, mechanics, etc, can have what they need to thrive,” the website states. “All our chefs are giving their time and skill freely.”
New Forest East MP Julian Lewis, who voted against the motion, told the A&T: “Having been elected as a Conservative MP, I shall continue usually to vote for the recommendations of the Conservative government.
“In this case, it was that £9.3bn extra invested in welfare during the Covid crisis was a better way to proceed than using vouchers for periods when children are neither at school nor being forced to work from home during school shut-down periods.”
Defending his decision on his website, Desmond Swayne, MP for New Forest West, said it had never been the government’s policy to “take from parents the responsibility for feeding their children”.
“In total, eligible families collectively received £380m in meal vouchers while schools were partially closed, but I do not believe that this is an effective way of dealing with the problem,” he continued.
“The proper way to address poverty is to empower parents by tackling their poverty at source, by increasing their income. Accordingly, Universal Credit has, in response to coronavirus, been increased by £1,040 this year.
“In addition, between 2015/16 and 2019/20, 1.7-million people were taken out of paying income tax altogether as a consequence of raising the personal tax-free allowance to £12,500 for all 32-million income tax payers.
“Furthermore, the adult national minimum wage was raised to £8.72 per hour.
“In total £53bn has been spent on income protection schemes and £9.3 billion on additional welfare payments.
“These are the proper ways to treat those on low incomes with dignity, rather than being issued with vouchers for lunches, almost as a badge of poverty, much in the way that claimants are demeaned in the USA by being issued with food stamps.”
Christchurch MP Chris Chope is understood to have been absent from the vote.
Spokesperson for New Forest East Labour Party, Jethro Bor, said that with poverty getting worse amid the pandemic, 1.4-million children now depend on free school meals.
“This makes it all the more shocking that our New Forest East MP Julian Lewis this week decided, in conjunction with a majority of Conservative MPs, to reject the Labour Party amendment that would have allowed these children who are entitled to free school meals the opportunity to have lunch vouchers during school holidays.
“As a now Independent MP, Lewis has no party whip demanding he make this decision. It was his choice. Meanwhile, MPs get their expenses paid for the subsidised food and drink that they consume.
“While we really welcome the support of altruistic local groups across the country helping to provide disadvantaged children with free meals during the holidays, we are disgusted that it has come to this reliance on charity.”
Trina Hart, spokesperson for New Forest West Labour Party, said while it was “heartening” to see communities pulling together, there was only so long businesses and well-intended individuals could continue to feed the 3,000-plus children in need across the New Forest.
“That’s a lot of meals and a lot of children, and how do such endeavours ensure that all those in need are helped? Who will fall through the cracks?
“Sir Desmond Swayne was one of the MPs who voted down the bill to help feed children in poverty – we would love to know why this was the case given the need in this area.”
Labour councillor for New Milton, Helen Wallis-Dowling, said: “We cannot imagine why the decision to stop the school meals voucher programme was even a conversation, let alone taking it to a vote.
“We know, first-hand, the level of need in our immediate community, and I for one am really surprised that we are where we are now with this.
“Our community will continue to support those in need, but this is not nearly the same as those families receiving the security they need each week. It is extremely likely that children in the New Forest will suffer hunger during this time.”
The government is under mounting pressure to go back on its decision, with Conservative MPs growing angry at the damaging impact of the government’s refusal to back down in the face of the campaign.
A directory of businesses and organisations offering meals is available at www.schoolmealfinder.org, a site created by Manchester software and app development agency Silverchip.