CNA Staff, – England soccer star Marcus Rashford won praise when he persuaded the government Tuesday to extend a free school meal voucher scheme to cover the summer break.
The Manchester United forward’s campaign will allow parents to claim vouchers for around 1.3 million children in England during the six-week holiday.
While Catholic charities welcomed the breakthrough, they said that the new measure alone would not be enough to ensure that children have enough to eat when schools close next month.
Anna Gavurin, coordinator of the Caritas Food Collective at Caritas Westminster, said in a statement June 16: “In the last few weeks we have seen many schools setting up their own food banks and food parcel delivery schemes to support families who are struggling.”
“Even with free school meal vouchers available, schools are seeing a level of need so great that they have been forced to provide direct food relief themselves.”
The Caritas Food Collective seeks to tackle food poverty across the Diocese of Westminster, which covers all of London north of the River Thames. It has been working closely during the coronavirus pandemic with St. Bernadette’s Primary School in Kenton, Harrow, a suburban area of Greater London.
Headteacher David O’Farrell told CNA that the organization was helping him to provide food vouchers for hard-to-reach families who don’t qualify for free school vouchers.
“Marcus Rashford was right: we can’t stop doing that in the summer holidays because that’s the worst time to turn off that tap. But the problem is that it doesn’t reach everybody because not everyone’s on the free school meals register,” he said June 16, the day of the government U-turn.
He explained that in order to qualify for free school meals families needed to meet certain conditions.
“One of them is that you forgo your Working Tax Credit,” he said. “My parents here are predominantly in low-paid jobs, such as cleaners, pizza places, chicken shops, betting shops, these types of things.”
“If they were to accept the free school meals offer, they would lose a huge amount of working credit. So people don’t take it.”
Around five years ago, O’Farrell decided to set up a food bank at the school, which has a significant number of Romanian, Polish and Sri Lankan students, and is located in one of the poorest wards in Harrow.
With the help of a school governor who worked in the food industry, he converted a shed into a storage room for dry foods such as pasta and rice, as well as soup. When the governor left, the local parish, All Saints, Kenton, stepped in to help.
But at every stage, O’Farrell said, some needy families felt unable to access the food because of “this huge issue of embarrassment.” He believed that the problem could be solved if schools gave parents vouchers they could redeem at local supermarkets.
The Caritas Food Collective asked him to put his idea down in writing.
“I wrote it and I didn’t think I was going to hear [any more] about it,” he said. “Then all of a sudden we had lockdown and they wrote to me saying that they had put the plan into place. We were eligible for £500 worth of vouchers, which we’ve used. And we’re now on our second lot of £500.”
“I reckon we’re supporting about 25 families at the moment. Every day now we have two or three families coming to use our food bank.”
He described the plight of one family which was made homeless recently when the landlord increased their rent. They were rehoused in a neighboring borough. O’Farrell sent the mother vouchers and invited her to visit the school food bank. When she collected the food, she broke down in tears.
“It was just the first act of kindness she had received,” he said. “She was so relieved because she was at the end of her tether. That was in week two or three of lockdown.”
Asked what motivated him to find new ways to help families, O’Farrell said: “Christian values are very important to me and very important to the way we run the school. It’s also my upbringing as well. I had to stand in the free school meals line with a different colored ticket to everyone else.
“But looking at these poor children, they are worse off. It’s our duty as Catholics, as Christians, to do something about it.”
O’Farrell underlined his gratitude to Caritas Westminster for its emergency food voucher scheme.
He said: “They’ve been brilliant. There’s an email here from Anna [Gavurin] saying that on Friday we’re getting a Hasbro toy delivery, because she’s got a link with them. So some of our children will be going home with brand new toys on Friday, which is lovely.”