R4U urges Essex to end the Free School Meals crisis after local teachers feed children

Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) has urged Essex County Council, the local education authority, to take the responsible step of ending the Free School Meals (FSM) shortage for local children. The action is a direct result of MPs refusing to fund the out-of-term Free School Meals programme, which has led to local teachers and school staff paying to feed those in need in their classes.

Alex Armstrong (R4U) Alex Armstrong (R4U)

R4U’s Cllr Alex Armstrong, who is also the Uttlesford District Council Portfolio Holder for Education and Libraries, said “As a result of Covid-19 many more families in our district are now in financial hardship. These are families who were struggling on low incomes before the pandemic. Research by food poverty charity Trussell Trust, backer of the Uttlesford Foodbank, shows that a quarter of UK parents with under-18s skip meals because of money. Our society has long-established principles of supporting those most in need, and the national Free School Meals programme is part of ensuring that no child should go hungry. Child food poverty is a big issue and has recently been brought into the national consciousness by Marcus Rashford MBE. Last week, the majority of Westminster MPs voted against extending the FSM programme during the winter holidays this year, despite clear evidence of increased need and social vulnerability. As a result I have written to Essex County Council, the local education authority, to urge it step in to make sure there is food on children’s tables for as long as the government refuses to do so. In the meantime we are working out what we can quickly do through the councils we lead to help local Uttlesford families.”

Petrina Lees (R4U) Petrina Lees (R4U)

R4U’s Cllr Petrina Lees, who is also the UDC Portfolio Holder for Wellbeing and Health, added “Many of my council colleagues and I were appalled by one MP’s claim last week that feeding hungry families was ‘nationalising children’; yet hypocritically MPs food is taxpayer subsidised to an eye-watering £4million a year. That is the equivalent of 1.7 million free-school lunches. MPs also have generous expenses. Closer to home, Uttlesford’s own MP’s expenses over the last 2 years would pay to feed all children in her constituency who qualify for Free School Meals out of term for a whole year. Yet Kemi Badenoch MP, who was the Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families, voted against the measure.”

Cllr Lees concluded “Whilst it seems the majority of MPs don’t care about child food poverty, the Uttlesford community does. Teachers and staff at the Saffron Walden County High School have dug into their own pockets to fund all the free school meals required by the school’s students over half term. They have been joined by local businesses, community groups and residents who have offered the same either directly or via donation programmes. This is heart-warming, but at the end of the day it is the government’s responsibility to protect its most vulnerable citizens.”

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