I began writing this post while the news was again dominated by the free school meals scandal. It’s been a few weeks since then, but since I’d wrote the majority of this post and it will always be an important issue, I wanted to finish and publish it anyway.
This situation should, of course, always be at the forefront of the news as long as the UK government continues to get it disastrously wrong. I could also say that about the coronavirus pandemic, but that’s a focus for another day.
Footballer Marcus Rashford campaigned hard to ensure that kids would still be receiving free school meals, even when trapped at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. He did a fantastic job at bringing widespread attention to it, which culminated in the government backing down and agreeing to supply the meals.
But the issue that arose last week is that the meals are, shall we say, lacklustre.
Led by author and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe and Marcus Rashford, images began appearing across Twitter of the free school meals parcels that were being sent out. Before long, Twitter exploded, and I was seeing them everywhere.
Here’s one that Marcus Rashford shared, for example:
3 days of food for 1 family…— Marcus Rashford MBE (@MarcusRashford) January 11, 2021
Just not good enough. pic.twitter.com/Y7FJEFFAma
While this is supposed to be 3 days’ worth of lunches, other photos were apparently of 5 and 10 days worth. Bear in mind that the supplier, Chartwells, is supposed to be supplying £30’s worth of food from this. Most of it looks like it’s barely £5. So where is the rest of the money going? Is this blatant profiteering and saying to hell with starving kids? Maybe, given that the company in question is a Tory donor and Tories like to give contracts to their friends.
Yet even though we’re talking about hungry kids being fed here, you can still find plenty of angry comments on social media that blame the parents for the situation. It’s comments like ‘you shouldn’t have kids if you can’t afford to feed them’ and ‘why are you complaining when you’ve got something for free?’.
Let’s address the first comment first. If you’ve made this comment, then please just engage your brain for a moment. They say that most people are only a payday or two away from complete disaster, because there are plenty of people out there who live from payday to payday. Whether they’re living beyond their means is a topic for another day, but the point is that anyone can end up in a situation where they’re struggling to feed their children. You can’t turn back the clock on having a child, the child will still need feeding and clothing regardless of your current circumstances.
There’s a global pandemic on. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs. Money that was coming into your house has suddenly vanished and you’re now surviving off the benefits system. Even if you do have a job, it doesn’t mean it pays very well. For years prices have climbed, rents have gone up and the country is generally more expensive to live in than ever. But wages have stagnated, and the laughable minimal wage is hardly a liveable wage in this day and age.
The point is that you can’t punish someone for the circumstances they find themselves in. Things change and bad things can happen to us all. We can’t always predict what’s around the corner and many of us could easily end up on the breadline. Besides, even if the situation was self-inflicted, does that mean the kids have to suffer? No. In one of the richest countries in the world, kids should not be starving.
On the second point, free stuff doesn’t mean that you can’t complain. It doesn’t matter whether it’s free or not. The fact is that it should be a substantial amount that a child will not go hungry on. Besides, it’s not free as taxpayers have paid for it. Even those on paltry minimum wages and zero-hour contracts can still be taxpayers (provided they earn enough).
Even if you’re not a taxpayer, the tax system should be about helping others. Where did our compassion to help our fellow humans go? It’s like when people in the US are opposed to a national healthcare system because they don’t want to pay more taxes to support sick strangers. It would be a pretty uncaring country if services were denied to you because you currently weren’t paying tax.
Society is about supporting each other, and that means everyone. It should never be about skimming off contracts offered amongst rich friends. It shouldn’t be about endlessly increasing wealth while more and more people fall into poverty.
There’s always been a demonising of the poor, particularly when a Conservative government is in power. It’s easy to say that people should make the effort to improve their situation when you’re tapping away on your brand-new iPhone but think about it for a second. When you’re living day-to-day in a poorly paid job with long hours before coming home to a child who needs feeding, it’s more about surviving and making the best of what you have. Living like this does a lot of damage to your mental health. So can you really blame people for not having the energy to go out there and try to improve their situation? An improvement that may never come due to a system that doesn’t want them. Life circumstances also mean that you don’t always have the opportunity to improve your situation in any case.
Anyway, even if people improve their lot over time and make life more comfortable, that doesn’t change the fact that they need help right now. Any of us could fall into poverty, and I’d sure as hell hope that my country had a support system to aid my family of that ever happened.
All this is a moot point anyway. Because, ultimately, feeding hungry kids should never be debated. It should be done, no matter the circumstances of their parents. It baffles me that some people in this country have zero compassion and seem to be ok with kids starving.
I’ve probably just rambled on here. For a much better written look at the whole situation from someone who has lived through it, read ‘You Don’t Batch Cook When You’re Suicidal’ by Jack Monroe.