I think we can all agree 2020 has been a bit of a write-off. We are living through the effects of the worst pandemic for over a century and it’s affected us all in one way or another. I haven’t seen my own dad since February and I’m sure there are many OU students who haven’t been able to be with their loved ones, who have lost someone to COVID-19, who have lost jobs or had hours cut and are struggling financially.
There have been some bright moments though. The 10 weeks of clapping for the NHS and recognising the heroes on the front line, people checking in on elderly and vulnerable neighbours and going out to get their shopping for them. Volunteers signing up to help in their communities to support the lonely who were most isolated during lockdown. People finding creative ways to spend their time. And who can forget the outpouring of support as the nation watched WWII veteran, Captain Sir Tom Moore do 100 laps of his garden, raising a whopping £32 million for NHS Charities? I was in tears at that one and I bet some of you were too.
However, I’ve been particularly struck by the efforts of one young man this year. A man on a mission, who is taking on a huge challenge with passion and determination, all whilst still doing his day job as one of the nation’s brightest sporting stars. That man is Marcus Rashford.
OK, full disclosure. I am a Manchester United fan (cue the boos and the comments about prawn sandwiches…). But what Marcus is doing goes way beyond football and straight to the heart of the fight for social justice, based on his own experiences growing up in an impoverished household where food was often hard to come by. He has set out to end child food poverty.
It’s unbelievable, isn’t it? That in Britain in the 21st century we have children going to bed or to school hungry. More than four million children in this country are growing up in poverty, not knowing where their next meal is coming from. Sometimes they don’t get a hot meal for days. Often, the only place where children in poverty can rely on a meal is when they are at school.
Earlier this summer, Marcus campaigned for children who qualify for free school meals to have access to a scheme during the summer to ensure they could still eat. Though the Government initially said no, there was an eventual U-turn with 1.3 million children being given access to vouchers for free school meals during the holidays. After being honoured with an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, Marcus vowed to continue the fight to eradicate child food poverty. He wants to be the voice for these children, who otherwise have no voice.
The fight intensified recently when the Government voted against a motion to allow free school meals during the October half-term holiday. It’s fair to say the decision has caused outrage but it’s also prompted a massive outpouring of support for Marcus’ campaign, with hundreds of businesses and local councils across the country taking it upon themselves to offer free meals to children over half term. A massive Twitter campaign has ensued and the hashtag #endchildfoodpoverty was, on the evening of Friday 23rd October, trending number one in the UK. Marcus himself is retweeting as many of these offers as he can. It’s awe-inspiring to see. As I write this article, business’ continue to come forward to offer support. Though they themselves are struggling with the economic effects of the pandemic, they are finding it in their hearts to show compassion and stand up for what is right. No child should go hungry.
I saw and retweeted a tweet a few days ago that suggested when crowds are eventually allowed back into stadiums, Marcus Rashford should receive a standing ovation at every ground he plays at in this country. I totally agree. This man is the role model we all need.
Campaigning for access to free school meals is one thing, but this is a bigger struggle. As the economic effects of the pandemic take hold there has been a huge increase in people accessing food banks. One in six people who are turned down for benefits are struggling to buy food. This includes middle-income professionals who have lost their jobs and graduates who are unable to secure a job after leaving university. In Newcastle upon Tyne where I live, the West End Food Bank, which has been described as “the busiest in the country” says it saw a 210% increase in food parcels being handed out during the first phase of lockdown. Demand continues to soar as more and more people find themselves out of work.
The effects of childhood hunger on physical and mental development include malnutrition, stunted growth, difficulty concentrating and behavioural problems. It isn’t right and I stand with Marcus in saying that no child should have to go hungry, but neither should their parents. People might argue that folk should learn to budget better, but when you’ve been hit with losing your job suddenly, your partner has had their hours cut, you're turned down for benefits and the bills mount up, it’s kind of hard to do that.
So, what can we do?
Small actions can make a huge difference. Though I’ve made donations to food banks and dropped spare change into charity boxes on an ad-hoc basis, I want to do something more structured. I’ve decided that when I do my weekly shop, I am going to add an additional £1 on to my bill, and I’m going spend that pound on basic items available at low prices.
On Saturday I did my usual shop in Morrisons. And for the extra pound I vowed to spend, I got the following own-brand products:
- 2 packets of curry flavoured noodles (14p each)
- 1 tin of mushy peas (15p)
- 1 packet of cheesy pasta in sauce (20p)
- 1 tin of chicken soup (24p)
- 1 tin of spaghetti loops (13p)
All that added up to exactly £1. That’s a fair amount of basic food for £1. There are many other items available that can be mixed and matched too. On my way out of the shop, I dropped those items in the collection trolley for the local food bank. And I’m going to do that every week from now on.
That’s £4 - £5 a month. I can afford that, and it means I can help out and do my part to help feed those most in need on regular basis. Forget eat out to help out, this is spend a quid, feed a kid.
You may already be doing something like this yourself, which is fantastic. But if you’re not, and you are able to, why not join in with me? We are the largest university student body in the UK with over 170.000 registered students, that’s a lot of potential donations and extra items in our food banks.
I know not everyone is in a position to join in. Please don’t think that I’m being cheeky enough to assume that everyone has money to spare, especially in this climate. If you’re not able to join in yourself, you can still help. You could pass this idea on to family, friends and work colleagues who may be able and willing to help. Maybe this way, we can get a whole movement going and a new hashtag trending.
The Open University has always had social justice at the heart of its ethos. If there was ever a mission for social justice, this one is it.