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Photo Credit: Peter Byrne/ PA
Photo Credit: Peter Byrne/ PA
UK News

'It's a biblical responsibility, let alone a political one': Steve Chalke backs calls for free school meals during all holidays

by Tola Mbakwe

Steve Chalke has urged the UK Government to reverse its decision not to extend the free school meals over the holidays until at least Easter.

"If we believe that we have to provide these children with free school meals, because otherwise they lack the nutrition to be able to grow and thrive and study and succeed during school term times, do we imagine that they can exist on thin air through the six weeks of the summer, or the weeks of Christmas, Easter and a half terms?" he said during an interview with Premier. "Of course not. We need to provide a steady ongoing care."

His comments come as businesses, local authorities and community groups step up to provide thousands of free meals for children in need.

Dozens of people from a range of organisations, including Conservative-led councils, have stepped in to help, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock praising their "absolutely wonderful" efforts while insisting that millions has already been provided to town halls to help their communities.

Chalke, who's the founder of social action charity Oasis Charitable Trust, said many local pubs and cafes have pledged support to the charity because it runs a foodbank. However, he said the Government's praise for local communities responding to the issue is worthless.

"It's no good Government thanking restaurants and pubs and cafes and, and other groups for the good they're doing and congratulating them, at the same time as withholding taxpayers' money and not caring for the most disadvantaged," he said.

Chalke said Oasis, which also runs 52 academies across the country, said it's schools has seen a 43 per cent growth in the number of children deemed vulnerable.

He added: "They say you can judge the ethics of a nation by the way in which it treats its most vulnerable people. And of course, as Christians, we understand that Jesus said ‘ whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'. So we have to level up. It's a biblical responsibility, let alone a political one.

A petition from footballer Marcus Rashford, who has been spearheading demands for free meals to be extended in England over the school holidays, has passed 800,000 signatures, piling further pressure on the Government to act.

Rashford questioned Boris Johnson's willingness to engage with him on the issue, suggesting they had not spoken since the Government's U-turn on providing food vouchers during the summer break in June.

Mr Hancock said he agrees "very strongly" with "the purpose" of Rashford's campaign, telling Sky News: "I think we're all inspired by the way that he's led that campaign."

He said that Universal Credit had been increased by £20 a week while £63 million has already been provided by central Government to local authorities so that they can support people.

But he hinted that further help could be given, amid reports the Government is planning a partial climbdown in time for the Christmas holidays.

"Our attitude and our purpose it to ensure that everybody gets the support they need and no child, of course, no child should go hungry, nobody could possibly want that," he told BBC Radio 4's Today.

"The question is how best to do it."

Mr Hancock was challenged over whether decisions by councils - including Tory-run authorities - businesses and charities to step in showed that more direct action is needed.

"I think that's absolutely wonderful that companies have come forward and are playing their part and supporting people in these very difficult times.

"I also think that it's brilliant that the councils are coming forward, having been funded by central government, £63 million has gone to councils so that they can do exactly what you say, so that they can support people and make sure that everybody and every child gets the support that they need," he said.

The Health Secretary said there had been "communication" between Mr Johnson and Rashford, who reportedly wrote to the Prime Minister in September.

But the Manchester United star responded on Twitter: "Hmm, unless he's referring to the call we had following the U-turn in June?"

Meanwhile, Wakefield Cathedral is piloting a project to feed children from a local church school this half term.

If successful Wakefield Cathedral hopes to extend its food poverty campaign wider from the new year to play their part in alleviating child hunger across the city and its communities.

Very Rev Simon Cowling, Dean of Wakefield, said: "Food poverty in a country as wealthy as ours is a scandal, and we will do all we can at the cathedral to play our part in helping children get through half-term without going hungry."

The initiative is part of the Eat Up Stand Up project Wakefield Cathedral launched last year when it served a pay-as-you-feel home cooked meal and invited speakers to come and discuss topics of the day - these included food poverty and homelessness.

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