Manchester native, United star, and recently awarded MBE Marcus Rashford, made headlines over summer through his partnership with food poverty charity ‘FareShare’, as well as the successful social media campaign he spearheaded against the Tory government’s refusal to provide free school meal vouchers to England’s poorest families. Helping feed underprivileged, hungry children is perhaps the most popular act one can commit to. Not only did Rashford play a crucial role in the provision of emergency, £15-a-week daily meal vouchers for 1.3 million kids over summer, the FareShare campaign he championed recently committed to providing three million meals to vulnerable people throughout the UK by the end of July; this has made Marcus a very popular boy.
Not to stop there, however, the England international has urged the government to extend its food voucher scheme over the winter break, and has thrown his weight behind a cross-party parliamentary bill to fund free breakfast provision in schools, particularly those with high numbers of disadvantaged pupils.
“People claim education is the best means of combating poverty, but that formula is only successful if children are able to engage with learning”, Rashford declared, “no child can engage and sustain concentration on an empty stomach.”
However, as became evident from the reaction of many to Rashford’s pressure campaign, not everyone appreciated his efforts. His imploration for grief and sympathy over the amplifying effect that lockdown has had on poverty was met with the indignation one now tends to expect, given the loutish state of many football fans around the UK; the battle-cry of the ever-aggrieved masses was, predictably, ‘stick to football’.
What’s worse is that, in the replies to his petition for state assistance in curbing child hunger during COVID – in which he attacked the government for abiding a 250% increase in child poverty – some resorted to the cruel dehumanisation of the less fortunate one learns to expect from this country; one troll remarked ‘Can’t feed them – Don’t breed them.’ He was met with considerable opposition over social media for his emotive plea – many appealed for the England star to ‘stay in his lane’, whereas some resorted to vile racist attacks.
This debacle is sadly so reminiscent of the response which many black athletes engaging in activism across the pond are met with. Far-right television host Laura Ingraham made headlines in 2018 for haranguing NBA superstar Lebron James to ‘shut up and dribble’ over comments about Donald Trump and racial inequality, while almost the entirety of the US national media hounded Colin Kaepernick for his decision to ‘take a knee’ over anti-blackness and police brutality.
Furthermore, Rashford’s plead for government support for children going without sufficient nutrition earlier in the year drew the ire of the apparently more sensible – the British political class. Conservative MP Thérèse Coffey was devastatingly ‘ratio’d’ (16k replies to 669 likes) after appearing utterly tone-deaf while attempting to fact-check Rashford’s appeal; whilst partisan hack Daniel Hannan backed the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions with a character-appropriate ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’ – as he was objecting to the provision of food for the underfed.
Despite the unsurprising contrarianism with which the prolific striker was met, his agitation at the beginning of the summer was immensely fruitful. The PM and his cabinet conceded their initial stance on this vital issue, announcing a treasury allocated £120m for a ‘COVID summer food fund’.
This issue is personal for Rashford. Raised by a single working mother of five, his family relied on “breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of neighbours and coaches” when money was tight. Detailing the extent to which household poverty envelops every element of the lives of struggling parents like his own and causes extreme stress, he expressed his gratitude that, because of the government’s ‘U-turn’, “these families [have] just one less thing to worry about tonight.”
However, his recent efforts have been rebuffed. Despite meeting with opposition from better-hearted members of his party, Boris Johnson’s government has yet to announce plans to extend the school holiday food voucher scheme over the winter break. Conservative chair of the education select committee, Robert 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.”
Not to let a good cause die, Rashford tweeted “It’s also not for food banks to feed millions of British children but here we are… This is not going away anytime soon and neither am I” and penned a petition to government – said petition has since gathered over 200,000 signatures and, as such, will be heard in parliament.
I hope that, for the sake of the 4 million (and counting) children growing up below the poverty line, that MPs come to their senses and fund another round of food vouchers. I also hope that through stories like these, the few dissenters can be convinced that, in crisis-ridden times like ours, athletes deviating from their leafy, sporting footpaths can bring about an innumerable amount of good.