At the end of 2020, for the first time in 70 years, Unicef pledged £25,000 to support the community project School Food Matters aimed to provide food to children from 25 British schools over the Christmas holiday. At the time, 3.3 million children were registered for free school meals, an increase of 17% from 2019.
The revelation provoked the public’s consternation and the petition “End Child Food Poverty” initiated by the footballer Marcus Rashford gathered more than 1.1 million signatures. By the time the MPs started debating the petition in Parliament, Rashford had raised £20 million and was already distributing food parcels.
Unicef, UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian aid to children worldwide, said the coronavirus pandemic was the most urgent crisis affecting children since the second world war. The British government’s reluctance to extend the free meals programme led to a significant dip in Boris Johnson’s popularity as the government response to child food poverty was described as “a lot of clothes pegs without a washing line” (BBC, 2020).
Coming to think of it, free school meals is not the only failed governmental strategy yet it is bruising the national vanity the hardest. We are used to applauding Unicef’s interventions in third-world countries not to witnessing the sixth world economy’s inability to feed its own children in a pandemic. Nothing hurts more than being told you are a bad parent, that you care more about haircuts, the next holiday abroad, the pub opening hours, than about your children’s lunch at school. Being told you are bad at parenting is one thing but admitting it willingly is something else altogether. It’s not about recognising a systemic failure, it is simply admitting that your heart is failing.
Britain, your heart is failing. The core which supports your social systems needs an infusion of compassion and empathy; it needs radical intervention beyond statistical progress, beyond doctrine, beyond sneaky text messages exchanged between “the high and the mighty.”
This intervention won’t be generated by an individual tick in black ink smeared on voting ballots next week. I wish it was that simple. Passing the responsibility higher up the power chain has led to a tacit collective culpability which feels comfortable justifying the existence of food banks. Exercising democracy at a voting station will not transform our society since one million signatures on the petition initiated by Marcus Ashford has done nothing to eradicate child poverty in Britain. It gave us all a pat on the back, the illusion of possibility, as we returned to our post-lockdown revenge spending spree.
And that’s that. Things are almost back to normal while our collective actions give the measure of our collective consciousness. Since the lockdown ended, searches on ebay for ‘high heels’ surged 53% overnight, according to EBay Ads UK. Meanwhile searches for ‘clutch bag’ made by shoppers rose 55% and the sale of ‘hoop earrings’ and ‘fake eyelashes’ increased by 25%. In a couple of months, the summer holiday will mark the end of free school meals and the beginning of a national barbeque season.
© Maria Stadnicka, April 2021.