The footballer Marcus Rashford has thrown his support behind a cross-party parliamentary bill to fund free breakfast provision in schools while the government faces mounting pressure to extend its £15-a-week food voucher scheme over half term.
Rashford, who was awarded an MBE for services to vulnerable children at the weekend, has spoken of how his school breakfast club played a crucial role in his early life, providing him with friendships, community and vital “fuel” to engage in school work.
He is backing the bill to fund free breakfast at all schools with high numbers of disadvantaged pupils.
“Breakfast club played an integral part in my life. Not only did it guarantee that I had fuel to sustain the day and really engage in learning, but it is where I formed my life friendships. Breakfast clubs offer a community and an acceptance, it offers stability,” he said.
He added: “People claim education is the best means of combating poverty, but that formula is only successful if children are able to engage with learning. No child can engage and sustain concentration on an empty stomach.”
At least 65 MPs are backing the school breakfast bill, including the Conservative chair of the education select committee, Robert Halfon. If passed, it would build on existing breakfast provision by guaranteeing schools additional funding to cover the costs of food, delivery and extra staff time.
Rashford, who plays for Manchester Utd and England, has also called on the government to extend its £15-a-week food voucher scheme over half-term, which falls just as the government’s job retention scheme ends, putting thousands of jobs at risk.
The striker has previously spoken of how growing up in poverty in Manchester inspired him to set up his campaign to end child food poverty. In June he forced the government into a U-turn over plans not to provide a summer holiday food voucher scheme for low-income families.
Ministers are under increasing pressure to provide support for children on free school meals during the forthcoming half-term holidays, as concerns mount over rising numbers of low-income youngsters at risk of food insecurity.
Campaigners want free school meals rolled out to all children whose parents claim universal credit or equivalent benefits, but believe ministers should seek to head off an immediate crisis over half-term at the end of October by reintroducing the vouchers.
The Food Foundation chief executive, Anna Taylor, said: “As we near the end of the job retention schemes and more areas are going into local lockdowns this will only put more pressure on struggling families. We are also heading into the October half-term holiday and unless government acts now we know that over a million children will face food insecurity.”
The government has refused to comment on whether it will provide food support over half-term. The voucher scheme was much criticised when it was introduced in lockdown, with parents and schools complaining that the online system was unreliable and slow. The scheme is currently subject to a National Audit Office inquiry.
About 900,000 children have newly registered for free school meals in recent weeks, according to estimates by the Food Foundation, while Labour councils have calculated that 450,000 youngsters could spend half-term under increased lockdown restrictions but without free school meals.
Halfon called the bill a “no-brainer” that would increase academic attainment. “Combating child food hunger should be as much a priority for this government as its work on improving education standards … The evidence suggests hungry children not only do not learn at school, but we also damage their life chances later on.”
The Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck, who will introduce the bill to parliament on Tuesday, said: “Children going without food is an issue of morality, above party politics, and with over 4 million children growing up in poverty.”
Although the government currently funds breakfast provision at 2,500 schools through its £12m National School Breakfast Programme, this is due to end next March. Campaigners suggest that about 7,000 currently eligible schools are not part of the scheme.
A government spokesperson said: “We have taken substantial action to make sure children and their families do not go hungry, extending free school meals support to those eligible when schools were closed, increasing universal credit by up to £20 a week, funding councils to provide emergency assistance to families with food, essentials and meals and allocating £63m to councils who are distributing it to those in need.
“A good breakfast helps children learn, which is why our £35m contract supports Family Action and Magic Breakfast to run breakfast clubs in up to 2,450 schools in disadvantaged areas across England.”