OPINION: Marcus Rashford has played a blinder helping the hungry children of Erdington

Words Adam Smith

If this was any other year, then Marcus Rashford’s campaign to fill poor children’s stomachs might have fizzled out faster than a flaming Turkey Twizzler in a Northern blizzard.

But this is 2020, a year none of us will ever forget, and the Manchester United striker has nutmegged the Government completely and touched a raw nerve with the British public.

Today is the first day of half term in world’s fifth largest economy and there will be children going hungry because our Government will not pay peanuts for dinners.

And in the great scheme of things the £20m needed to provide poor children with dinners for a week in England (Scotland and Wales are providing them) is the equivalent what can be found down the back of the Government’s sofa.

I understand the argument though – it is not up to the Government to provide children with school dinners during the holidays. However, we are not living in normal times.

Millions of people in the North are living under lockdown and are unable to work, those on minimum wage and who qualify for help are not even getting the full amount, so if there was ever a time for the Government to listen to a footballer’s humanitarian plea then this is it.

And considering the story has led the news agenda for six days now, I bet they wish they listened to the 22-year-old and did a U-turn as they did in the summer.

Figures released in the summer revealed the Erdington constituency had the fourth most schoolchildren in England eligible for free school meals, 33.8% of 15,932 pupils.

To put that into context, if you walk down Erdington High Street today, you WILL see lots of children who need free school meals and could be hungry right now.

However, top of the free meals eligibility league was Northfield (35.4% of 16,437 pupils), which is represented by a Kingstanding councillor.

Erdington must be the only constituency in the country to have three MPs in the House of Commons. Labour’s Jack Dromey was elected by the people of Erdington in last year’s election, but in a strange twist of electoral fate we have two more elected voices who could shout for our area in Parliament.

Kingstanding Conservative Councillor Gary Sambrook rode into Westminster on Boris Johnson’s blue wave and was elected to represent Northfield. And Castle Vale Conservative Councillor Suzanna Webb took advantage of the Brexit / Remainer Tory civil war to replace former minister Margot James as MP for Stourbridge.,

A year after the election and both remain councillors, and therefore are supposed to be representing the area the best way they can. Both voted to stop feeding Brum children in the holidays.

From a quick glance at Hansard, it seems both are not raising Kingstanding or Castle Vale issues in Parliament – it is a bit like blagging your mate into a posh nightclub with a free bar and then not getting him a free pint because “it’s not the done thing”.

If you enjoy politics as a spectator sport, then this week has been great fun, seeing a working class Northerner run rings around politicians.

First there was the demand to feed hungry children, then the Parliamentary defeat and then, Britain being Britain, the avalanche of free food being offered by businesses across the country.

Seeing the amount of companies, councils, and charities answering the remarkable young man’s plea was a beautiful bright spot in a morass of COVID misery.

Erdington and Kingstanding did not disappoint either with cafes like Goodfillas and Stockland Café, and chippies like Reed Square, offering free food for children.

Goodfillers Cafe – Kingstanding / Kids can eat free (off the kids menu only and 1 meal per day) from Monday 26th to Friday 30th between 8am -1pm. Eat in only no takeaways

This was Pype Hayes fish bar Reed Square’s Facebook post: “We were shocked when MP’s voted down the motion to give free school lunches to deserving children throughout the October half-term holiday.

“Presently we’re witnessing first hand the devastation that the pandemic is causing to some of our customers finances due to job losses, reduced working hours therefore reducing their household incomes.

“As a proud member of this local community the team at REED SQUARE FISH BAR want to play our part. As such we will be offering each school age child a free meal, each lunch time next week with a choice of sausage and chips, chips and peas, chips and curry, chicken nuggets and chips. (one meal per child per lunch time).”

Have you ever known a chip shop sounding so angry? No, me neither. It was not so long ago politicians were demonising chip shops for causing our little cherubs to be obese – now the chippies are giving kids free food because the Government won’t… we are living in weird times.

Kingstanding Regeneration Trust are giving away 200 free meals tomorrow between noon and 2.30pm at George Road Baptist Church, Erdington – click here for more details..

And then there were the MPs who doubled down on the keep kids hungry policy. A North Devon MP attacked those businesses offering to help by saying they shouldn’t moan about being under COVID restrictions  – then Ben Bradley and Mark Jenkinson claimed mothers were swapping food tokens for drugs.

And now the defense is crumbling, with new Tory MPs feeling the white hot heat of Joe Public’s disgust as the man/woman in the street realised their taxes pay for subsidised meals – but not to feed the poorest children in society during a pandemic.

The Government is safe in power for another four years. But those Conservatives who are facing the ballot box next year are pig sick over the fowl up over these free meals. West Midlands Mayor Conservative Andy Street is a perfect example, he is up for re-election next May and he broke ranks to call on the Government to do a U-turn.

And then this morning, when the story could have run out of steam, Health Minister Matt Hancock did the PR equivalent of pouring petrol on the story and flicking a match at the media.

Hancock told us Boris Johnson had been talking to Marcus Rashford about the situation. Which was news to Marcus, so he tweeted immediately this was not the case.

New MPs usually pile on the pounds when they get elected, an endless round of free lunches naturally expand their waistlines. Then there is the subsidised food and drink in Parliament – a petition to stop this perk has got thousands of signatures.

The sheer disparity of well-fed politicians refusing poor children food is stark; it might not be as simple as that, but that is the perception. And it has enraged people, alongside MPs set for a 4% pay rise and private companies getting contracts worth billions of pounds to fail repeatedly at keeping us safe.

I qualified for free school dinners when I was a kid at Great Barr Comp. But my mom was too proud to claim them so instead of sitting with the cool kids eating chocolate concrete and pink blancmange, I’d be looking longingly from the ‘sarnie tables’ because I couldn’t face another lunch hour eating a drab crab paste sandwich.

I knew hunger as a child, as a teen, and as an adult when I worked in London – but what saved me in ‘the smoke’ was getting a press pass to Westminster.

All the food and drinks in Parliament are subsidised… by you. By the taxpayer. It was the cheapest place to get a decent pint and dinner in the entire city. What would cost £30 in St Stephens Tavern opposite Parliament would cost £7 inside those hallowed walls.

The food was fantastic too. And one thing’s for sure, there was not a Turkey Twizzler on any of the menus in Westminster.

To find out more about Kingstanding Regeneration Trust’s food giveaway visit www.facebook.com/events/2610523112591632

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