British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made an about-face Tuesday and agreed to fund school meals for poverty-stricken students over the summer after a campaign from soccer star Marcus Rashford.
Rashford, a 22-year-old striker for Manchester United and the England national team, gained the support of celebrities and politicians on opposing sides of the political spectrum when he wrote an open letter to the government pressing it to continue a meal voucher program that was set to end at the end of the school term in July.
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In the letter, Rashford described his own experience growing up as one of five children of a working single mother and relying on free school meals and the kindness of others.
“As a black man from a low-income family in Wythenshawe, Manchester, I could have been just another statistic,” he wrote. “Instead, due to the selfless actions of my mum, my family, my neighbors, and my coaches, the only stats I’m associated with are goals, appearances and caps. I would be doing myself, my family and my community an injustice if I didn’t stand here today with my voice and my platform and ask you for help.”
While Johnson had initially resisted extending the program that supported 1.3 million children from lower-income families in England, the government announced Tuesday it would continue funding it through the summer at a cost of $152 million (120 million pounds).
After the announcement, Rashford tweeted: “I don’t even know what to say. Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”
Johnson said he had spoken to Rashford to congratulate and thank him.
“We have to understand the pressures families are under right now and that’s why we’ve responded as we have,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, said “the prime minister fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation” because of the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide lockdown.
When schools were shut down in March as part of a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, a food voucher program was set up to help ensure they didn’t go hungry. Vouchers worth $19 (15 pounds) were given to be spent each week in supermarkets.
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Meanwhile, the British government is facing intense criticism for its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Britain’s official death toll of almost 42,000 is the highest in Europe, and the government has been accused of putting the country into lockdown too late, costing thousands of lives, and having inadequate stocks of protective equipment.
Lawmakers have said the British economy has shrunk by over 20 percent in the three months since the lockdown, creating a struggle for families throughout England.
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In a statement, Rashford thanked British lawmakers for listening.
“This was never about me or you, this was never about politics, this was a cry out for help from vulnerable parents all over the country and I simply provided a platform for their voices to be heard,” he wrote. “I stand proud today knowing that we have listened, and we have done what is right.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.