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Students and Social Change: Raising Money for Free School Meals

Charlotte Lear talks to the University of York students behind the campaign to provide food to vulnerable children in York over the Christmas period.

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Image Credit: Joel Muniz via Unsplash

On 24 October, less than a month after England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford was awarded an MBE for his dedication to ending child poverty, 322 MPs voted against an extension to free school meals over the Christmas period. As of January 2020, over 1.4million children in the UK were eligible for free school meals, meaning that just under 20% of the entire student population will be at risk of food instability over the upcoming Christmas period.

In a time of paralysing uncertainty which is severely affecting those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, some would argue the government has left the most vulnerable to fend for themselves, redirecting the responsibility of aid to the people of the UK. This is a responsibility which two University of York students have taken up with vehement urgency.

At the time of writing, Emily Quli, Katy Chapman and their dedicated team of volunteers have raised £1,875 – more than double their original target of £900 – to feed York’s children over the Christmas period. The campaign circulated rapidly on social media, with the majority of the money raised solely within a 48 hour period, almost entirely by University of York students. This is a collective effort to support the local community which must be recognised in light of the recent parliamentary vote.

I spoke to Emily and Katy over Zoom to hear more about their campaign and how students can be instrumental in instigating support and change in their local communities.

They explained that the initiative started as an impulse, a gut reaction to the vote in Parliament. Emily recalled, “we’re both quite into politics and have a desire to act on things. We were frustrated because we couldn’t do anything about it but then we thought: well, why can’t we?”. Using any University of York student’s first point of call for popular opinion, the girls turned to Yorfess, asking if any students would be interested in raising money for food for the children in York over Christmas. “Within the first 20 minutes,” Emily says, “at least 20 to 30 people were messaging me wanting to get involved.” They quickly realised this was going to be big, even having to mute notifications whilst they established a more solid plan of action.

Having done so, they got to work setting up an Instagram account (@yorkchristmasmeals), offering a clear point of contact for their GoFundMe page which then went viral with student societies and individuals sharing and donating. Katy says, “with the first few people we created a Facebook page but then I had at least 50 DMs with people asking to be added, so we have now been able to split the effort into separate groups.” Emily made the point that, “we just want everyone to get involved and so it needs to be micro-managed. People want to take physical action rather than just donating so now we have teams for social media, sponsorship, contacting local schools, admin, food nutritional research and fundraising for collaborations with charities - hopefully later in the Autumn term”.

“What we would love to happen,” Emily says, “is a socially distant Christmas event in which families come along to collect their food and don’t feel like they’re receiving charity. We want to make it fun with Christmas cheer, lots of festive music and jumpers!” For the creation of these food parcels, the research team is taking the time to look into foods which will provide the children with the best nutrition possible within the two week perishable date they’re setting. This will most likely include non-perishables such as tins and dried goods such as pasta and rice. “All the money is going to the children one way or another,” says Katy. “We need to work out how many students we’ll be catering for, and if more money comes in then obviously we will aim to extend our reach.”

They are also taking into consideration that the government may take a U-turn on their decision not to extend free school meals, bearing in mind other U-turns that have happened during the course of the pandemic. Katy ensures: “we’ll keep doing what we’re doing. At the end of the day free school meals as they stand don’t dissolve the existence of child poverty. Free school meals have never encompassed such a massive problem as Covid. Combined with this and the winter flu, kids need to build up their immune systems and so the more food the better, really. The government can say they’re giving more money to local councils to deal with these issues, but we think this means it will be less monitored.”

What Katy and Emily are doing touches on a huge issue regarding the involvement of university students in their local communities. Emily says that we need “to get involved with as much as we can wherever. Why wouldn’t you? Getting involved certainly doesn’t need to be a massive effort. This just came from an idea and if everyone did something then it would make the world a better place.” She adds that “it helps to beat the stigma around students being lazy and inconsiderate, especially now due to our image in regards to Covid. We’re still people, and this has shown us to be more compassionate than the government. But of course it’s a struggle – clearly even the government can’t manage it!” Katy says that it’s about “respecting the place you live in. We’ve been given this opportunity and we should respect it. We are so, so fortunate. This is so powerful, students helping students. We’re not necessarily the most well off but we think the comradery amongst students is stronger than ever due to feeling cast-out and ignored by the government.”

Some have suggested that this campaign should go beyond the Christmas period, even ratifying as a University of York student society but Emily says, “we’re just going to see how this goes. What makes the campaign so important is that we felt compelled to do it and without this urgency we don’t think the momentum can be maintained. Of course if we have spare money we will be doing whatever we can but really we’re hoping to inspire people to just act. There’s no excuse to not know where to start… we didn’t.”

Ultimately, Katy says, “the University of York has really shown itself in this. We have friends in universities up and down the country and we haven’t seen anything like this happen; it would be amazing if it could be a nation-wide student effort. We need to normalise compassion and kindness. Develop your own political voice and want to make a change – educate yourself and spread the word. Do your own thing! It doesn’t need to be through us.” Emily stresses that we need to “act instead of being angry. When we work together something will happen. Though the government can often leave us feeling powerless, what we can control is our ability to help people.”

Emily and Katy wanted to take the opportunity to send a massive thank you to everyone who has been involved so far. Even those who just shared to their social media page, “we are overwhelmed by your generosity,” they say.

*If you would like to get involved you can follow their Instagram page @yorkchristmasmeals and donate at *https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/feedyorkthischristmas?utm_term=rYqWzjgBV

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