Free school meals row sees donations soar at Newcastle West End foodbank

The political row about free school meals has led to an increase in donations to the Newcastle West End foodbank, bosses there believe.

At the centre of the issue is a petition launched by footballer Marcus Rashford MBE which called on the Government to extend free school meal provision over the half term holiday.

Despite intense pressure and over 1 million signatories, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has so far refused.

John McCorry, chief executive of the West End foodbank, said the Manchester United star’s campaign has struck a chord with the public.

“He gave the issue a voice, raised its profile and people have responded,” he said and as a result there has been a noticeable increase in people arriving there to drop off food donations.

It has meant any concerns that an increase in demand from families in poverty looking to feed their kids during the holiday might overstretch resources there have proved unrealised.

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Mr McCorry said the situation has also been eased by a number of schemes and initiatives launched by local authorities including Newcastle City Council working with local businesses to distribute free food to children during the holiday.

There are around 13,000 children eligible for free school meals in Newcastle and the council confirmed that it had delivered approximately 1,800 lunches to around 900 children on Monday and Tuesday.

And then there is the protest by Newcastle United fans over the Premier League’s controversial pay-per-view scheme which saw them donate the £14.95 they would have had to fork out to see their team play to the West End foodbank, raising over £20,000 so far.

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There is already a close bond between the two thanks to the ongoing NUFC Fans foodbank group.

Mr McCorry said the volunteers there working day-to-day have told him how “uplifting to see the amount of donations coming through the door”.

It’s been a turnaround since the Covid-19 outbreak and the lockdown restrictions imposed since March which saw donations drop as people were required to stay at home and the ability to travel was severely curtailed.

However, donations are now actually up on last year before the pandemic and the food bank is helping feed thousands of people a month.

“Nearly 40% of these are children being fed from poor families,” said Mr McCorry.

Over the months they have looked at different ways to keep provisions there up and get food out to those who need it.

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Funds have been used to buy wholesale from supermarkets while the supermarkets themselves have set up collection points in store. It has partnered with charities and organisations to help deliver food parcels to those most in need.

These include the Building Futures East – East End Women’s project which helps feed around 400 people a week from its base in Walker. Another is the Byker Food Pantry, which is run by the Life Vineyard Church in a project that helps families reduce their grocery bills by selling food at below retail prices and issuing food vouchers to families in need.

Mr McCorry said: “One of the nice things is that everyone seems to be pulling together. There is a great sense of the community coming together and it’s very uplifting.”

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