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Free school meals: vouchers are not good enough

Those in need deserve straight cash to feed their kids, without judgement and without strings attached, says MOLLIE BROWN

OVER the last week we have seen social media networks awash with pictures of the school dinner hampers that have been supplied by external catering companies to replace free school meals.

Although the contents seen in the majority of these “hampers” were a disgrace, external companies providing in school catering at mass profits in not a new occurrence. The privatisation of education and services within the sector including academisation has been increasing at a tremendous rate. Huge companies are making a profit from your child attending school, in many cases at the detriment of the children.

Following the outrage, the government has made another U-turn and replaced the hampers with vouchers — welcomed by many — but I say it is simply no where near enough.

Free school meals are provided to those on low incomes: you are entitled to them if your household income is less than £7,400 per year. The people receiving these hampers or vouchers are already in extreme poverty.

What we already know is that even before the Covid-19 pandemic many families were already struggling to make ends meet. We know that there are more foodbanks in Britain than McDonalds. We know that parents are forced into making dire decisions on heating and eating and we have seen the heartbreaking dispatches documentaries Breadline Kids.

Before this pandemic hit, child poverty in Britain had hit at record levels.

Most of the employment that pays minimum wage would be found in retail, cleaning, catering and service sector jobs. Which means most people struggling on already low incomes have either became essential workers overnight or have been furloughed with only 80 per cent of their income — or lost work altogether.

So, parents are now either furloughed on 80 per cent of what was already insufficient to live on or have been faced with unemployment. On top of this, due to the mishandling of the pandemic we are now in the third lockdown with schools closed to most children with no real indicator of when they will reopen.

Yes, I know that you can send “vulnerable” kids to school, but then surely during a global pandemic where Britain has some of the highest rates in the world the focus should be to make sure that no child is “financially vulnerable” and that they can be safely at home?

When you are living on the breadline (believe me I’ve been there) it will often be the case that there is pre-payment meter for gas and electric and then most houses now also have water meters.

Many will go without heat in the day so there is enough gas on the meter for night. So, think for a moment of the extra costs involved in children being at home all day doing online learning (this is before the extra costs of laptops and internet bills).

Where are the vouchers for these needs? It goes way beyond food poverty. These are the issues that need addressing.

The idea of an underclass in our society is very real. Working-class people are laying the blame on each other. The same arguments used against refugees and asylum-seekers are being regurgitated and spat at our neighbours and friends.

You should not have a smart phone or run a car; you shouldn’t have a drink on a weekend. You are not putting your children first. We have all heard it and seen it. And it often comes from those who have the same phones and indulge in a drink to wind down after a hard week.

So why the judgement? Why do people believe that they are more deserving than others? Because they have a better and more secure job? It’s because people are brainwashed into believing that those in receipt of government help are a drain on society?

What we should be questioning is why companies can treat employees with such disregard. How can they pay so little but boast huge profits? Who is really benefiting from the supposed support systems in place? It is not those in receipt of the meagre support handed out.

Why can’t we give those in need cash payments instead of vouchers? Vouchers which can only be spent in selected supermarkets, some with terrible track records for pay and conditions?

The reason is that it has been drip-fed that those at the lower end of society cannot be trusted — that they will squander the money on unnecessary items that they don’t need. Whose place is it to decide the difference between needs and wants?

The issue of child poverty in Britain existed long before the Covid-19 crisis, but it has taken the pandemic to highlight many of these issues. For me as an activist and mother I want to see real change, a society where we don’t judge one another. Where employers are made to support employees fairly and pay decent living wages, with support systems in place when needed.

Unfortunately, after decades of neoliberal capitalism that change is not going to take place anytime soon or inside the walls of Parliament.

But right now, we can all come together and ensure that the pressure is on those in government to put some support mechanisms in place for those hit the hardest. Pressure works: how many U-turns have we already witnessed? We need to call for substantial cash payments for all those in need — an immediate increase in child benefit could easily solve this issue.

And while we are at it, how about a “real” economic recovery system in place so that when this is over people are given the chance to enter well-paid work so that they can fully support themselves?

Vouchers are just another way of segregating people in society. It is not a solution; it is part of the problem which needs to be exposed.

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