By Sheena Eastwood, manager, St Vincent Centres in Leeds and Bradford. Original article appeared in the Friday 13th November issue of the Catholic Universe.
It is impossible to ignore the tidal wave of media coverage for Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free meals during school holidays. And that’s quite right, given the government’s initial reluctance to accept the demands set out in the End Child Food Poverty petition, which has garnered well over one million signatures.
The government’s climbdown and the introduction of a £400 million support package to help poor children and their families is testament to Marcus Rashford’s tenacity and his firm belief that no child should go hungry. He graciously welcomed the government’s move in a phone conversation with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but cautioned that there were still children at risk of food poverty "because their family income isn't quite low enough" to trigger help.
Marcus Rashford’s petition highlights the plight of thousands of families and individuals across the country who were struggling before the pandemic hit, but who are now in dire straits during another national lockdown, and those who have fallen into poverty since Covid darkened our skies.
As the manager of the St Vincent's centres in Leeds and Bradford, I was recently interviewed by the BBC for its Breakfast TV show and for Radio 4’s Today programme and BBC Radio Leeds to describe what the SVP is doing to help feed people who cannot afford to feed themselves. After a series of technical issues with the sound equipment, I found myself live on air to be asked by the BBC Breakfast reporter why the government should have to pay for free meals for children. My reply was simple; it doesn’t matter who these children are, or what circumstances their parents or guardians find themselves in, it’s not the child’s fault. A hungry child is hungry regardless of the circumstances. You don’t need to justify feeding a child more than that.
Marcus Rashford recently said that “these children don’t have a voice, so instead they can use mine.” For such a young man to share his story in order to lift people out of the poverty he endured as a child is inspirational, and sends a powerful message to our political leaders that many in this country are not willing to watch the next generation go hungry. Marcus Rashford’s message also demonstrates the same Vincentian spirit which drives SVP members to selflessly seek out and help those in most need in their communities.
As a community we should all be ashamed that we have hungry children. Everyone has a part to play in ending this situation, and we all need to do whatever we can to help out, particularly at a time when poverty and isolation are an ever-present threat to a large proportion in our communities.
Food shows love
At St Vincent's centres across the country our staff, volunteers and SVP members work tirelessly to feed and support people in need. That might be a chat over a cup of tea, or help filling out a form, or a hot meal when you can’t afford it. These simple things make an enormous difference to the lives of people hit by poverty, isolation, or those suffering prejudice.
At our centre in Leeds we have been part of the Healthy Holidays initiative in association with Leeds Community Foundation for the last three years. Three summers ago, a local school in Leeds wasn’t able to provide food during the holidays, so we picked that up and provided ‘stay and play’ sessions with crafts, games and safe outdoor play, along with nutritious food. We provided breakfast in the morning, then lunch so the children would have full stomachs for the rest of the day. This has continued at the centre since then.
We have always provided free food for anyone who needs it. We receive daily donations of fresh and dried food from supermarkets, FareShare and other organisations. We also currently have an outdoor marketplace for people to pick up food if they need it. There’s no judgement. People do not need to justify why they need the food, and there’s no stigma attached to picking it up. If you need it, it’s there for you.
We also have a ‘pay it forward’ scheme where people can donate the cost of a meal or a hot drink, so when anyone comes into the centre who needs a meal or hot drink, they can have one.
During the previous lockdown many food bank services were forced to close, but we decided we had to keep going. Every day we provided food boxes in the morning, which contained bread, milk, eggs, fruit, veg and cheese. At lunchtime we provided a takeaway with meat and vegetarian options. It’s important to note that we ensure our food is always of good quality, because it’s not just about the food, it means more than that. It’s about morale, it’s about people’s dignity. Our food is always of value and the people who eat it also feel valued. At peak times we provide 1,500 meals a week.
The St Vincent's centre in Bradford also provides free food and food parcels. In Newcastle, our community centre provides 250 free meals every week. The centre has become a place where everyone is welcome to meet and chat in a warm, friendly environment, though the current lockdown has temporarily prevented this. We offer haircuts, housing advice and help with benefits, and free local newspapers. However, these services are under threat in lockdown, but we innovate and provide an alternative, be that takeaway meals, ‘knock and drop’ food deliveries, or outdoor food provision. We know our services are a vital part of the lives of our guests, so we will always meet the demand in the safest and most responsible way we can.
Our newest centre in Southend-on-Sea has become the local focus of charitable action on poverty, homelessness and combatting isolation. Meanwhile, the SVP centre at Tower House in Brighton supports older people, who otherwise would feel isolated, providing activities to improve mobility, breathing and memory.
A message of hope
Casting a glance into the future, the Christmas holidays are approaching, and the second lockdown looks like it may continue over the festive season, which means the government’s announcement on funding for free meals and activities during school holidays is well timed.
However, wherever there is darkness, there is light too, so the SVP centres will feed children and families who need our help through the Christmas holiday period. We will also provide a Christmas gift for children whose families or carers cannot afford to provide one. The gifts are brand new and unwrapped so they can choose.
We will also provide Christmas lunch in a box. We ask our corporate supporters to help us ‘feed a family for £10’, which means being quite creative, but it’s possible. On Christmas Day we hope to provide lunch at the centre for those who are feeling isolated or we will provide a takeaway or deliver a festive lunch for anyone who needs it.
If he is reading this, I would say to Boris Johnson; thank you for listening to Marcus Rashford and always remember ‘it’s never the child’s fault’. Over one million people agreed with him, and I’m proud to be one of them.