Soccer star Marcus Rashford's campaign to feed poor students has sparked a partisan political battle that makes scoring goals for Manchester United seem trivial by comparison.
The 22-year-old England international successfully lobbied British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government in June to extend free school meals through the summer. But one of Britain's few feel-good stories of the coronavirus pandemic — the country is among Europe's worst-hit with almost 44,000 confirmed deaths — has turned sour.
Rashford's bid to score again — through a Labour Party motion providing vouchers over school holidays until Easter — was thwarted Wednesday after a House of Commons debate that ended with the measure rejected largely along party lines.
“We must stop stigmatizing, judging and pointing fingers,” Rashford said in a statement. “Our views are being clouded by political affiliation. This is not politics, this is humanity.”
More than 1.4 million children benefit from free school meals, according to the Labour Party.
The debate raged on social media, as well, as Rashford and Conservative members of parliament sparred about how best to feed hungry kids.
Ben Bradley, a Conservative MP, named Rashford on Twitter in a post that said extending the free school meals program “passes responsibility for feeding kids away from parents, to the State. It increases dependency.”
Bradley argued that the government has increased school budgets and made the welfare system more generous during the pandemic.
“We're doing A LOT to help the most vulnerable children, but ever- extending freebies are a sticking plaster not a solution,” he said.
Rashford, who grew up in the Manchester area, was one of five children of a single mother and relied on free school meals and food banks as a kid.
“Nobody is pointing fingers, I'm asking we work together to protect our most vulnerable children dealing with the devastating effects of the pandemic," Rashford wrote on Twitter in response to Bradley. “This is nothing to do with politics.”
“This is not dependency, this is a cry for help. There are no jobs!! 250% increase in food poverty and rising," Rashford added. "Nobody said this was simple...”
Just this month, Rashford was honored by Queen Elizabeth II for his earlier effort to feed kids. He was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire, or MBE.
On the field, Rashford scored a late winner Tuesday as United beat Paris Saint-Germain 2-1 in the Champions League. The morning after, he said he'd be paying close attention to the House of Commons to see who would be “willing to turn a blind eye” to needy children.
The soccer player's name came up quite a bit during the floor debate.
Governments in Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland have committed to extending the food vouchers through Easter, Labour's Kate Green said.
Nearly one-third of families in England have lost income during the pandemic, according to a petition started by Rashford which has garnered more than 330,000 signatures.
“These children are the future of this country,” Rashford wrote in his statement on Wednesday. “They are not just another statistic. And for as long as they don't have a voice, they will have mine. You have my word on that.”
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