Footballer Marcus Rashford said he “could not be more proud to call myself British” as he praised local communities for stepping in to provide free meals to children during the school holidays.
The England star’s pride comes as councils, including Tory-run bodies, announced half-term stop-gap measures and a Conservative mayor criticised the government’s “last-minute” decision-making on children’s free meals funding.
Rashford, 22, who was given an MBE for his work with children in food poverty and forcing a government U-turn, said he is “truly overwhelmed” by the support his campaign has received, after Parliament rejected proposals to provide free meals to vulnerable children during the school holidays.
He will be back in his day job later as Manchester United play against Chelsea at Old Trafford.
The striker’s petition has garnered more than 600,000 online signatures by Friday night – as the numbers continued to grow.
The viral campaign came after MPs in the Commons this week rejected a Labour bid backed by the footballer to extend free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021.
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Among the businesses and organisations around the country who offered free food were tea rooms, churches, farms and takeaways.
In a statement to BBC Newsnight, Marcus said: “Growing up we didn’t have a lot, but we always had the safety net of the community.
“The community was my family.
“When we stumbled, we were caught with open arms.
“Even at their lowest point, having felt the devastating effects of the pandemic, local businesses have wrapped arms around their communities today, catching vulnerable children as they fell.
“I couldn’t be more proud to call myself British tonight.
“I am truly overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.
“You want to talk about ‘celebrities’ and ‘superstars’, look no further than my Twitter feed and that’s exactly what you’ll find.”
West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, who is a Conservative, said the government should “make a clear decision” on whether it would or would not fund free school meals over holidays “well in advance”.
He said: “It should not be a last-minute thing, this should be planned for. There should be a national approach on this.”
The lack of planning meant there is now “indiscriminate arrangement” across the country as to whether free school meals should be provided over the week.
Kensington and Chelsea Council in London, which is run by the Conservatives, said it will provide free school meals for eligible children in the borough next week during half-term.
Almost 3,000 children in the borough are eligible for £15 vouchers from their schools to cover the costs of meals during the holiday – the equivalent of £3 a day for lunches.
Hillingdon, Medway and Wandsworth Councils, also Conservative, are getting on board.
The Labour leader of Birmingham City Council said 61,000 children would get meals in a scheme that would cost upward of £800,000 to £1m.
The Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, said he was not prepared to “stand by and watch” as he announced £300,000 of funding.
The mayor and the council has started a JustGiving page to raise money as part of a bid that “no child should go hungry this October half-term.”
McDonalds has also offered support to families, in a partnership with Fare Share UK to provide one million meals.
Downing Street declined to endorse the outlets for providing free meals for needy children.
A Number 10 spokesperson, who was asked repeatedly if the Prime Minister supported the offer from businesses and some councils, said: “As we have set out before, we are in a different position now with schools back open to all and the vast majority of pupils back to school.
“I believe the PM said during PMQs that free school meals will continue during term-time and that he wants to continue to support families throughout the crisis so they have cash available to feed kids if they need to.”
Meanwhile, Marcus Rashford described as a “hero of our times” by musician Tim Burgess, will be back on the pitch later.