Few public health campaigns can boast of having an internationally famous premier league football player as their spokesperson. But that is exactly what happened when Marcus Rashford MBE picked up data produced by The Food Foundation in his open letter to MPs in June 2020, calling on the Government to extend the food voucher scheme for children on free school meals over the summer holidays. Soon after, the Government announced it would do just that, and more wins were to come for the End Child Poverty Coalition. But, it takes more than star power to change Government policy. In this article, The Food Foundation, one of RSPH’s Health and Wellbeing Award finalists, describe what made their campaign successful, and the distance still to go.

  1. Fill a gap in the evidence base

The Food Foundation had published a report on the scale and severity of children’s food insecurity in 2019, before the Covid-19 outbreak began. So, when stockpiling of food began in March 2020, schools were closed, and the pandemic threatened global supply chains, the team were quick to realise the implications for children, particularly those in low-income households. Although the Department of Work and Pensions conducts an annual measurement of food insecurity levels as part of the Family Resources Survey, The Food Foundation realised that data needed to be collected urgently and on an ongoing basis to support policy solutions to the rapidly worsening crisis. So, from that March, the Food Foundation began commissioning a series of nationally representative surveys, tracking the level of food insecurity, and which groups were worst affected.

In their first survey at the end of March 2020, it was revealed that 54% of children entitled to Free School Meals weren’t receiving any provision, then a month later it was calculated that households with children were 50% more likely to be experiencing food insecurity than those without. This data formed the basis of submissions to the Select Committee for Environment, Farming, and Rural Affairs and that for Education, briefings to MPs, a series of open letters to the Department for Education, press releases and Marcus Rashford’s open letter in June 2020.

  1. Use lived experience

Data by itself is not always enough to bring home the gravity of an issue. To change hearts and minds, campaigners often draw upon real people’s stories. Fortunately, because The Food Foundation had already been researching food insecurity, they could do exactly that during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Their team of Young Food Ambassadors shared their experiences, and those of their peers, of food insecurity during the pandemic, in the media and directly to the Government and the Leader of the Opposition. They launched their own Right2Food Podcast on BBC4’s Food Programme; were interviewed on several national news programmes; presented to the then Children’s Minister Vicky Ford and the Department for Education’s advisory board on holiday hunger; and later appeared on Marcus Rashford’s BBC 1 documentary. These personal stories served to counter many of the myths and misunderstandings about food insecurity, and made the need for Government action even clearer.

  1. Build on existing initiatives

But what action should the Government take? The three key asks which The Food Foundation made were drawn from the National Food Strategy, a Government-commissioned independent review into the UK’s food system, to which the Foundation’s Director Anna Taylor served as an advisor. This added legitimacy to their recommendations as they were grounded in evidence, put forward by a range of experts from the agricultural, retail, public health and academic sectors. The recommendations also, crucially, built on initiatives that the Government already had in place. For instance, The Food Foundation campaigned for an increase to the value of Healthy Start vouchers (a longstanding scheme by the Department of Health) which increase access to healthy foods and vitamins for low-income families with children under four, be increased from £3.10 to £4.25. Similarly, the Government was already piloting the Holiday Activity and Food Programme, but The Food Foundation recommended it be rolled out nationwide so more children could benefit from a free, nutritious meal during the holidays. The final recommendation was to extend the eligibility of free school meals in England – which a child can only receive if their annual household income is less than £7,400 (compared to £14,000 in Northern Ireland).

  1. Build relationships

As well as developing a constructive relationship with MPs and Ministers, The Food Foundation has built cross-sector partnerships which have been critical to its campaigns’ success. In September 2020, they formed the #EndChildFoodPoverty Coalition to advocate for three of the recommendations within the National Food Strategy. This brought together more than 20 organisations from large NGOs like Save the Children and Trussell Trust to smaller ones like School Food Matters and Chefs in Schools. Working together meant they could have a stronger voice and a greater reach across both the public and Parliament.

Recognising that the vast majority of people buy food at supermarkets, and that there are actions therefore that major retailers can take to increase the availability and affordability of healthy food, The Food Foundation have also nurtured relationships with those companies. They worked with Marcus Rashford to set up the Child Food Poverty Industry Taskforce, which included supermarkets, school caterers, and food manufacturers who, as well as signing up to the three asks of the campaign, looked for ways to support their customers facing food insecurity in the absence of government intervention. Many supermarkets, for instance, agreed to add value to the Healthy Start vouchers or promote it in their stores to increase uptake. Iceland offered a free £1 bag of frozen vegetables for anyone using a voucher while the Co-op added an additional £1 credit when a voucher was redeemed at the till. This added weight to supermarkets’ call for the Government to increase the value of the vouchers.

Two down, one to go

As well as securing a U-turn from the Government on the extension of free school meal vouchers during the school holidays, the Food Foundation’s campaign also led to the first increase in the value of the Healthy Start voucher in a decade, from £3.10 to £4.25, and funding for the Holiday Activities and Food programme to be run nationally from 2021- 2024. Although the eligibility threshold for Free School Meals has not yet changed in England (while in Scotland and Wales, there is universal eligibility in primary schools), it has at least been extended to children with no recourse to public funds, and The Food Foundation have certainly not given up on this ask. They are continuing to collect data (such as surveys on voters’ support for free school meals being made available to all families on Universal Credit), give people with lived experience a voice and build relationships across sectors so that the near-4 million children currently experiencing food insecurity can have a healthier future.