By Grainne Cuffe, local democracy reporter
Lewisham has joined a growing list of councils that will fund free school meals for all children who need them over half term.
Mayor Damien Egan, who relied on free school meals himself as a child, said a “Government that cannot ensure children do not go hungry is failing in its most basic duty”.
The announcement comes after the Government rejected a Labour motion to extend free school meals over school holidays.
If passed, it would have provided 1.4m disadvantaged children in England with £15-a-week food vouchers during holidays until Easter 2021.
According to the Government, it is helping low-income families through the welfare system, through raising Universal Credit by £20 a week, and adjusting housing benefit.
But the decision, voted down by 322 to 261, has been widely criticised.
Lewisham will now send out food vouchers to the nearly 12,500 children who need them.
The three mayoresses of Lewisham had already been crowdfunding to pay for free school meals in schools across the borough with the highest need.
Dawn Atkinson, Natasha Ricketts, and Christine Norman have raised more than £19,000 so far.
In a statement on Friday (October 23) Mayor Egan said: “This week the Government withdrew support for free school meals for children during school holidays.
“In Lewisham 12,479 children rely on them and this decision has left many families and schools in a difficult position.
“My family relied on them when I was growing up and so I know how important they are in ensuring children don’t go hungry. We can’t stand by and let this happen.
“I’m incredibly proud of the campaigning work Lewisham’s mayoresses have been doing on this issue and would ask anyone who is able to, to donate to their fundraising efforts.
“Today I am also pleased to announce that, with the council’s support, Lewisham schools will be stepping up and filling the gap this half term.
“Children who need free school meals will get them and families should speak directly with their school to arrange this.
“I’m proud of the support our schools are giving the community, but they shouldn’t have to do this and I urge the Government to think again.
“Many families face the prospect of a tough winter, and a Government that cannot ensure children do not go hungry is failing in its most basic duty.”
Cllr Chris Barnham, cabinet member for children’s services and school performance said he was “very proud” of the move, but said it “is a position the council should have never been in”.
“The Lewisham mayoresses have raised over £18,000 to ensure children do not go without lunches this half term, but we cannot and should not rely on charity.
“This is at the same time councils continue to face government funding cuts due to austerity.
“I would urge the Government to put forward a long term strategy and invest in public services and to think again about holiday free school meals,” he said.
Manchester United player Marcus Rashford has been campaigning for free school meals to be given to children during holidays.
Today he has been highlighting councils and businesses across the country providing support for those in need during half term.
The footballer, who received an MBE for his efforts to end child poverty, was successful in lobbying the Government for food vouchers during summer.
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