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Big-hearted businesses: ‘We couldn’t watch kids go hungry’

Islington cafés, restaurants and community groups serve up free half-term meals, after MPs voted to reject food vouchers

30 October, 2020 — By Calum Fraser and Helen Chapman

Nick Blakeley and Maddison Willmott dish out half-term food behind their proudly displayed ‘Free Kids Meals’ sign at Southpaw Coffee café

BUSINESSES across the borough stepped in to feed hungry children this week after MPs voted down plans to provide free school meals over the half-term holidays.

Cafés, restaurants and community groups pulled together to offer thousands of meals to families over the break, despite facing financial hardship themselves in the coronavirus crisis.

Pirathiepan Navendan, who co-owns The Sauce restaurant in Highbury Park, said that “as soon as the vote happened” in parliament last Wednesday, where a proposal to provide food vouchers until Easter 2021 was rejected, he decided to help out. He spent the weekend organising suppliers and making packed lunches of rice, baked chicken, salad and fruit.

“The minute we opened on Monday we had 40 meals out the door,” said Mr Navendan. “There’s been queues every day, with more people coming.

“We have been inundated with stories of people struggling to get by and it’s sad to see.”

A cardboard sign saying “Free Kids Meals” was put up in the window of Southpaw Coffee in Roman Way, off Caledonian Road, on Monday. The popular café aimed to ship up to 1,000 meals this week, owner Orlando James told the Tribune.

Charm and Jammell Bonaparte, busy in the kitchen at the Elthorne Pride cooking lessons event

He added: “We can’t just sit by and watch this happen. It’s amazing that small businesses have stepped in when they are one of the groups that have suffered the most over the pandemic. We’ve all been hit hard, but we value community and health over profit.”

Southpaw’s lunch packs included sandwiches, yoghurt, fruit, juice and a pot of porridge from their supplier Rise.

Councils across the country, including Islington, announced on Friday that they would be supporting footballer Marcus Rashford’s initiative, after the Manchester United and England star spearheaded a campaign for free school meals to be extended over the holiday period through food vouchers for children.

Several parents and teachers, however, told the Tribune that Islington Council’s offer could not be accessed in time this week.

Elthorne Pride chairwoman Sandi Phillips with volunteers Mia Ager Brown, 13, and Shane Drackett, 15

The Perform drama school, based in Brewery Road, King’s Cross, gave out free lunches, while the charity Elthorne Pride held outdoor cooking lessons and provided meals next to Islington Boxing Club in Hazleville Road, Upper Holloway.

Elthorne Pride chairwoman Sandi Philips said: “Over lockdown we were providing food parcels and provided online cooking lessons with Mama Gee’s kitchen.

“We had decided to do something again in the new school year, then in terms of what was happening with free school meals we wanted to move quickly to help those kids who may struggle over this period.”

Elthorne Pride are due to host another cooking class today (Friday) from 12.30pm.

Helen Ryan, headteacher at Duncombe primary school in Sussex Way, said: “At Duncombe we have really high levels of free school meals, and it’s gone up from 48 per cent of the school last year to 67 per cent this year.

Pirathiepan Navendan spent the weekend preparing for free meals to be made available for children at The Sauce in Highbury Park

“In terms of the government’s decision, I am gobsmacked they think it is OK not to feed children. The narrative of ‘feckless parents not providing for their families’ is really disturbing.

“I have parents who work full-time jobs but still need help because their wages are not enough for living in London. We are providing a foodbank once a month and we try to make it coincide with the last week of the month when I know families are struggling most.”

Speaking in the House of Commons last Wednesday, education secretary Gavin Williamson said it was right that, during an “unprecedented and unpredictable” period at the start of the pandemic, extra measures were taken, adding: “But we are in a different position now that we have welcomed all pupils back to school.

“Free school meals are and always have been about supporting children with a meal to help them when they’re at school or currently at home learning. But it is our support through Universal Credit and our comprehensive welfare system that supports families.”

Islington Council estimates that more than 8,500 children in the borough are eligible for free school meal vouchers.
Council leader Cllr Richard Watts said: “Islington Council will not let children go hungry – we are stepping in to plug the gap that’s been left by this failure of national action.

“Please get in touch with our We Are Islington service if you or someone you know is worried about accessing food over the school holidays.”

The We Are Islington helpline number is 020 7527 8222.

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