Fish and chip shops in England that have stepped in to feed school children for free during the October half term have been praised by their local communities and, on the whole, agree that help is getting to those who need it.
Takeaways were quick to support footballer Marcus Rashford in his call for free meals to be extended during the half-term holiday, offering what they could, from a chip roll to a cup of soup to an entire meal and drink. They have been met with messages of thanks and even monetary donations to help support more families.
Churchill’s Fish & Chips, part of The Chesterford Group, has issued almost 500 meals since Monday. Parents simply mention “the meal is for Marcus” between 12-2pm during half term and a free hot meal is handed over.
Managing director Paul Goodgame, comments: “We have had tremendous support for this within the local community, the engagement and support for it on our social pages is off the scale. We’ve also had lots of support in store with customers wanting to donate and contribute towards the free food we're giving away.
“We are clearly seeing those stores we have that are in more deprived areas have a much bigger take-up of the campaign, which is what you would probably expect to see, I guess.
“It’s been a great campaign for our team to be part of - work to be proud of.”
In Gloucestershire, Simpsons launched free hot meals yesterday across its two stores in Stroud and Cheltenham. Bonny Ritchie, who runs the Cheltenham branch, commented: "I spoke to the guys at 2pm yesterday and they were absolutely mullered. We haven’t got an exact number but I think we’ve given out over 100 between the two businesses. We’ve given away any kids meals that they have asked for with a drink, no catch, nothing, they just walk in and get a kids meal.”
Asked if she felt the help was being received by those most in need, Bonny comments: “I think so, I guess we’ll never know for sure. If anyone has taken advantage, it’s one half term, I think we can live with that.
“For me, it was something I knew we just had to do, no child should go hungry. Our community has supported us when we opened back up and although we’re not back up to normal, our business is taking money again, something we are grateful for. It’s us now supporting our community.”
Captain Cod in Christchurch, Dorset, has had such overwhelming support from customers that the initial 100 meals owner Vicky Webster pledged now sits as 200. Vicky comments: "The day I put details on Facebook, everybody was ringing the shop, asking how they could help. I was getting text messages too so I put a donate button on our app and, instead of the meal going to the customer, I add it to our stock of children's meals."
Although some customers are reticent about taking up the offer, Vicky is ensuring every meal paid for goes to a family in need. She adds: "We've had a few people ring up and ask for a free meal and some come to the door, but I think they are worried about asking, so I've actually gone out and messaged people I know that are struggling and said I've put away five meals for your kids, we can deliver or you can pick up, and they have been really grateful. I've also spoken to the local youth centre and offered to deliver meals to the children there in the evening. I'm just trying to push it on as much as we can.
"I don't think people are taking advantage at all, which is really nice."
Seniors, which operates seven restaurants and takeaways across the Fylde coast in Lancashire, pledged to give away 4,000 kids meals during half term. Owner Alastair Horabin thinks they may fall short of that number, commenting: “People have been a little slow to come forward, I think there is still a stigma attached to receiving free school meals and asking for help, but we’re trying to keep it as light-hearted and as friendly as possible with the kids being the main focus. If there is the odd person that takes liberties, we have to take the rough with the smooth. I think by the end of the week we’ll go over the 2,000 meal mark.”
Although Alastair is delighted to see Seniors take part in the initiative, he’s also disappointed that shops like his need to step in, adding: “Across our seven sites, we cover several different areas one of which is Blackpool, which I think ranks eighth on the top ten most deprived areas of the country. So it’s great to be able to do this although I do think, as an independent chippy, we shouldn’t be feeding 500 or 1,000 kids a week. This should have been an easy win for the government, they should have got this right.”
The UK government extended free school meals to eligible children during the Easter holidays this year and, after a high-profile campaign by Marcus Rashford, did the same for the summer holiday. However, it has refused to do so again.
A petition created by the Manchester United striker calling for free school meals to run during the holidays has gained over 996,000 signatures.