On 21st October a parliamentary motion to provide around 1.4m disadvantaged children in England with £15-a-week food vouchers during school holidays until Easter 2021 was voted down by the Conservative government majority at Westminster. 

Hastings & Rye MP Sally-Ann Hart was among those who filed through the ‘no’ lobby, despite having earlier described as “brilliant” the campaign fronted by Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford to extend free school meals over the summer holidays. 

Her refusal to cast her vote in favour of state support for food provision over last week’s half term holiday and in the Christmas holidays to come has provoked harsh criticism from local Labour party politicians. It also galvanised a large number of restaurants, cafes and bars in Hastings to offer free meals to schoolchildren that, taken together, will have meant that none should have had to go hungry.

The political battle at both national and local level has been intense. At the beginning of September, Rashford unveiled a Child Food Poverty Taskforce supported by major supermarkets and food distributors with the aim of expanding the provision of free school meals to every child whose family is on universal credit, both in term time and over holidays.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed that local councils could finance support for the most vulnerable families in the October half term week from a £63m fund created in June to cover “local welfare assistance”. But the Local Government Association (LGA) retorted that this funding had been directed to be spent before the end of September and had been “outstripped” by demand. 

Cllr Richard Watts, Chair of the LGA Resources Board, issued a press release last week declaring: “No young person should have to go hungry, and ensuring vulnerable pupils are provided for is a top priority for councils.” The Social Mobility Commission, itself created by Mr Johnson’s administration, backed Rashford’s campaign, pointing out that the pandemic was having the biggest impact on the poorest areas of Britain where people are already struggling to afford food.

Locally, a spokesperson for East Sussex County Council (ESCC) said that they currently fund free school meals for 13,800 pupils across the county during term time at a cost in excess of £100,000 per week. That number represents approximately 22 per cent of the children in East Sussex schools (but excludes those at 11 Academy schools which administer free school meals themselves).  

ESCC had received just under £600,000 from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as an emergency grant, and used it to offer financial support to the county’s food banks and organisations working with food bank users as well as for fuel vouchers.

Hastings Borough Council has not received any emergency funding from central government for this purpose, nor sought any contribution from the county council, but has channelled £2,000 from its own COVID-19 response budget through the Education Futures Trust to provide food, according to its media office, “to the most vulnerable children”.

The Hastings & Rye constituency Labour party called Mrs Hart’s negative vote in parliament “disgraceful”. Today (Tuesday) supporters plan to meet at the doors of the Conservative party office in Theaklen Drive, St Leonards to lay plates there decorated with political messages.  According to their spokesperson, the plates “symbolise the empty plates of children living in poverty, and protest about their cruelty towards the most disadvantaged in our society”.

Meanwhile, a large number of food outlets in town joined in nationwide action to ensure that no children should go hungry last week. The No Bones café at the Prince Albert pub in Cornwallis Street and Southside Wrappers at Priory Meadow were first to advertise (through social media) free meals for schoolchildren. Others came thick and fast, most offering free packed lunches on one or more days last week on an unconditional basis to any presenting school-age children, though one or two sought to tie them in with the sale of an adult meal. 

Responding to these initially spontaneous offers, a community group, Hastings Food Action has attempted to co-ordinate provision – not just for the half term week but also focussed on longer term needs. But with many outlets about to close again under renewed lockdown conditions, who will be there to provide next time? 

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