Can Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign break the stigma around money and poverty shame?

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Hollie Richardson
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Marcus Rashford free school dinners

The footballer’s free school meals campaign has shed a light on the issue of poverty shame, a difficult childhood experience that Stylist’s Hollie Richardson is still grappling with in adulthood.  

Marcus Rashford is being hailed a national hero this week, and rightly so.

The 22-year-old Manchester United player wrote an open letter to the government, urging it to reverse the decision to stop free school meal vouchers when the summer term ends. Boris Johnson initially rejected the campaign’s proposal, but he later announced that children eligible for free school meals (FSM) in term time in England will get a six-week voucher under the new Covid summer school fund.

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This is of course a major success for Rashford and the families who rely on FSM, but for many people who grew up on a low-income, including myself, this is about so much more than money: it’s making sure those feelings of shame and guilt associated with poverty are finally placed on the right shoulders. The stigma around growing up without any money was a complicated shame shadow that followed me well into adulthood – and I don’t want any other kid to go through that.

Growing up in a single-parent family on benefits, I was eligible for free school meals, but I refused them. I instead chose to row with my mum over it in the mornings while she dug deep in her bag for a quid, knowing full well that I was taking away from an already small pot for food and bills. But the idea of people at my school knowing I was “poor” enough to get free food filled me with dread. We were skint and I spent everyday at school trying to hide that from people.

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I felt stings of shame in so many other ways, too: not being able to invite friends to my house because there wasn’t enough food for them; saying no to sleepovers because our battered car had broken down yet again; wearing fake Miss Sixty jeans on non-uniform day and praying no one could tell. Buying my own plate of chips at lunch was the one way I could feel normal.

To this day, I berate myself over this behaviour. How could I be so selfish? What did it matter if a friend saw me not paying for my food? Why would I put my mum through that? I think of the 1.3 million children who rely on free school meals today without any choice – they either eat FSM, or eat nothing – and wince at my own juvenile snobbery. Like I say, it’s all pretty complicated.

But Rashford’s words have reminded me, and everybody, that the only people who should feel mortified about the four million children living in poverty are those who lead this country.

In his letter, Rashford details his own upbringing, and never once mentions shame or embarrassment. He talks about the empowerment free school meals gave him. He thanks his mum and his community for doing everything they could to help him. As a role model to young people, he’s telling them there is absolutely nothing wrong with receiving state help. This is Rashford breaking the stigma that is so often attached to having no money.

free school meals
Free school meals: children shouldn't have to carry any shame.

But the point he makes that really shouts out is this: “My story to get here is all-too-familiar for families in England: my mum worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table. But it was not enough. The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked.”

He’s right: the system still isn’t built for families like his to succeed. There are around 1.8 million single parents in the UK – 90% of which are headed by women. A 2018 study by family charity Gingerbread suggested that by 2021 almost two thirds of children in single parent families are likely to be living in poverty. Yes, children should feel empowered to claim free school meals. But the question now is: why are there so many families living in poverty in 2020?

Johnson’s decision to stop FSM in the first place shows he has little to no understanding of this way of life. But, thanks to Rashford, perhaps the prime minister is finally starting to feel shame of child poverty on his shoulders. After all, it should be the government’s responsibility to carry it. 

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…