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OP-ED: Marcus Rashford: Footballer and champion of children

  • Published at 02:39 am November 21st, 2020

How the footballer is using his platform to address the issue of hunger

Many years ago, I wrote an article about Chelsea FC manager Frank Lampard, though at the time he played as midfielder for the team and was an outstanding one at that. He was also my 12-year-old son’s favourite player, and the article was written more in an attempt to impress upon my offspring what a “cool” mother I was with my knowledge of Lampard. 

Today, I want to write about another footballer -- Marcus Rashford. If I had been asked earlier in the year who Marcus Rashford was, I would probably have been able to say he was a football player but that would have been the extent of my knowledge. Apologies to Rashford and Manchester United fans. 

Currently, not only am I aware of who Marcus Rashford is -- that he is an English professional footballer who plays as a forward for the Premier League club Manchester United and the England national team, has just turned 23, was born in Manchester and raised in Wythenshawe -- I can also say that his professional career aside, he has become a champion on and off the field in the true sense of the word. 

I first read about him in June this year. It’s not often that you hear about a 22-year-old footballer being instrumental in highlighting the issue of child food poverty and hunger during a pandemic. Especially in the UK, where it is an issue that is not widely discussed or addressed.

Like many others, I thought it laudable that he used his public platform to address the extent of the problem and the need for the government to tackle this important and neglected issue. Rashford wrote: “Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to be hungry” and that “Food poverty in England is a pandemic that could span generations if we don’t course correct now.” His heartfelt appeal garnered both media attention and public support bringing child poverty into the forefront.

Due to the outbreak of the coronavirus and national lockdown earlier this year, the UK government extended free school meals to eligible children during the Easter holidays. But then decided that this would not be continued during the summer holidays, a blow to many families. Especially in many cases where either or both income generators within a family were made redundant due to the current economic crisis. 

In England, a free school meal (FSM) is a statutory benefit available to school-aged children from families who are from low income backgrounds (where household income does not exceed 7,400 pounds after tax), receive other qualifying benefits and have registered. 

Rashford wrote an emotional open letter to MPs imploring them to rethink their decision by drawing from personal experience of having to depend on free school meals and food banks while growing up. A story he felt was “all too familiar for families in England.” Being able to provide a hot meal or even a meal for their children on a day to day basis is a struggle for many households.

The young footballer spearheaded a movement to persuade the government to provide food vouchers during this period for over 1.3 million children in England who were receiving free school meals in term time. Despite the initial reluctance, the government bowed to public pressure and families who were claiming free school meals were issued with either electronic vouchers or gift cards worth 15 pounds per child, per week -- to spend at supermarkets while schools were closed. Therefore, giving underprivileged school children access to free food over the holidays. 

Fast forward a few months to October this year and much like a video on loop, the government once again refused to provide free meals to school children over half term holidays. According to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, families were already supported by the benefit system. I saw on my twitter feed calls to sign a parliamentary petition set up by Marcus Rashford (by then, Rashford was definitely on my radar) which said that “no child should go hungry” in order to try and get the government to change their decision. More than one million people signed, including me. 

The refusal by the government led to numerous cafes, restaurants, pubs, and local communities offering free food to eligible children over half term. He also raised approximately 20 million pounds to help improve the lives of children in need.

He went on to voice his concerns that there were approximately “1.7 million children who miss out on free school meals” because their family income was not quite low enough. The high profile campaign forced the government to make another policy U-turn and this time the prime minister informed the Manchester United and England striker that free meals would be provided for disadvantaged children not only during the Christmas holidays, but would be extended to Easter and summer holidays in 2021. 

Unsurprisingly, he has been hailed a “hero” in his hometown and beyond with people stating he is “a credit to the country.” His passion and determination in fighting tirelessly to address child food poverty has recently earned him not only an MBE (an order of the British Empire award) but also a Pride of Britain award. 

If this was not enough, Rashford is now collaborating with Macmillan Children’s Books (MCB) to launch the “Marcus Rashford Book Club” in order to promote reading and literacy among children from all socio-economic backgrounds. He stated that: “There were times where the escapism of reading could have really helped me. I want this escapism for all children. Not just those that can afford it.” 

Given what children are having to go through with a pandemic and lockdowns as part of their daily lives, he is once again showing us what a true champion is. 

Nadia Kabir Barb is a writer, journalist, and author of the short story collection Truth or Dare.

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