Today
Fri 7 May 2021

Following her successful social media campaign which led to a private company U-turning on providing meagre free school meals for children and the issue debated in Parliament, Hardeep Matharu speaks to Roadside Mum about poverty, stigmatisation and the shutting down of the voices which matter 

In the two weeks since the mother who would like to be known only as Roadside Mum forced a food services firm into a national apology over providing appalling free school meals to families in need and sparked a national conversation about food poverty in 21st Century Britain, she has heard nothing from anyone in Government. 

While Roadside Mum has had a Zoom meeting with Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner and Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green, she says she has not been contacted by any member of the Government – despite saying that she would be willing to talk to them about her experiences.

“The entire Government have blanked me,” she says. “The Department for Education spoke to Marcus Rashford about my experience but they didn’t speak to me. Vicky Ford [the Minister for Children] hoped my children were alright in a tweet. I said ‘talk to me’. No. Vicky Ford doesn’t want to talk to me. I’ve been more than happy to speak to people in Westminster and I can’t because, by and large, they’re not listening.”

Roadside Mum, who has two primary school-aged children, has the condition ME. A fortnight ago, she tweeted a photo of the free school meal care boxes provided to her two children by the company Chartwells.

During last year’s first Coronavirus lockdown, families with children eligible for free school meals were given vouchers worth £15 per child to spend at a selected number of supermarkets. When the current lockdown was announced, Roadside Mum’s local authority switched from vouchers to food packages, which it outsourced to Chartwells.

The photo Roadside Mum tweeted showed the company’s meagre offering for 10 days’ worth of lunches – including two browning bananas, a small pack of sliced cheese, two potatoes and three apples.  

It went viral on social media – it has now been seen more than 50 million times on Twitter – and the story national. It made the front page of the Guardian, was featured on BBC News bulletins and grabbed the attention of social inequality campaigner and Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford, who raises awareness around child food poverty. Alongside the many other photos of insufficient free school meals subsequently posted by unhappy parents, Roadside Mum’s tweet eventually led to Chartwells apologising, pledging that this would not happen again and offering refunds where it had. 

“Marcus’ impact in this debate has been nothing but pure positivity, I’m not taking a shot at him in any way, everything that he’s done has been really, really positive,” Roadside Mum says. “But Marcus Rashford can get a meeting with the Department for Education and Chartwells and I can’t. And it’s about my lunch. My lunch leads to a debate in Parliament at Prime Minister’s Questions, but I cannot get in touch with anyone from the governing party. 

“It feels like the Government are more than happy to speak to celebrities but they’re not happy to speak to the people it’s affecting. And it seems strange because the people it is affecting right now are not celebrities, they’re the people on free school meals – the people, by default, who are the least close to celebrity. Celebrity and poverty are, in a lot of ways, opposites.” 

She never expected her tweet to get the reaction it did and was not looking to start a campaign, but believes it was a “pure fluke” which “hit a nerve” because it portrayed the stark indignities silently carried by those experiencing food poverty in their everyday lives.

“There were lots of other people posting their miserable food parcels, lots of people joining the discussion,” she says. “It just happened to hit the zeitgeist… at kitchen tables all across the country people were thinking ‘this isn’t okay’ and then that one picture started a snowball rolling down a hill.

“I was expecting to get some degree of feedback and to be having a conversation with my followers about that picture. I wasn’t expecting that picture to be hitting the news in New Zealand. I wasn’t expecting to have an inbox full of New York Times and CNN and Telegraph journalists all trying to get hold of me. I had 150 to 200 reporter enquiries.”

At the time, Boris Johnson said that it was “clear that the images” surfacing by appalled parents across the country were “completely unacceptable”. It seems that the structural inequity of child food poverty is not, however. Just days later, Government guidance emerged stating that schools would not have to provide children with free meals during the February half-term.

For Roadside Mum, the ‘scroungers and skivers’ narrative rife in the mainstream media and among Conservative politicians is as much a part of the structural problem of poverty as employment or health outcomes.

“Why are we, as a first-world country, in a position where our children are relying upon a box of food?” she says. “That’s madness. We’re capable of doing so much better. There are structural issues that put people in poverty and keep them there and it’s extraordinarily difficult to get out of poverty once you’re in it. Once you are poor, everything conspires to keep you there. 

“We have all these ways of keeping people poor whilst we tell them that it’s their own fault they’re poor and, yet, people who are poor are extremely creative actually – there are ways and means of making what you need happen, but it takes so much effort.” 

The shaming of those in need of state support is a powerful tool to keep their voices silenced, she believes – and Roadside Mum has decided to take a stand against it.

“I’m not interested in shame – shame is useless and it’s a massive weapon as well, it’s part of the structural reasons why people remain poor. I don’t need to feel ashamed and I don’t. I didn’t ask for this condition [ME].” 

True to form, following Chartwells’ U-turn, the desire to heap shame on those in poverty was laced through a column of lazy stereotypes penned by Jeremy Clarkson in The Sunday Times.

“I am fed up to the back teeth of the whingeing this story unleashed,” wrote Clarkson, who has an estimated net worth of £48.4 million. 

“We live in a country where children from less well-off families are entitled to free lunches when they are at home. Yippee. But instead of celebrating that fact, and concentrating on making sure the food they get is not half an ounce of mould and a dead dog, I heard a woman on the news the other day demanding that she be given £30 to provide lunch for her child. Thirty quid? Where’s she going to take him? Fortnum & Mason? Another said it was no good providing actual food for her kid and she wanted a voucher instead. Presumably so that she could exchange it at the supermarket for fags and scratchcards.”

“I think those narratives will always continue and I think they’re excuses, deflections, ways of not addressing the issue,” Roadside Mum says. “What they’re basically saying when they say ‘well you’re not poor because you’ve got a mobile phone’ is ‘shut up’ – ‘shut up because we don’t like what you’re saying’. It’s not a real argument, it’s a way of shutting down argument. 

“We actually do need to talk about conditions for 1.44 million children in this country who use free school meals. We need to talk about how, as one of the most powerful countries in the world, Britain is supposed to be a rich, stable democracy. And yet, if you look at provision for children in Scandinavia, northern Europe or anywhere that’s remotely comparable to us, that provision is vastly stronger. We choose not to provide here because we choose to buy into those narratives that everybody is feckless and those narratives are then fed by certain sections of the media. 

“It’s all very much about excluding that voice. The only radical thing about what I did was that I persisted and said that I was going to be listened to.”

Roadside Mum – who has seen her social media following swell and says she will “continue to be a nuisance” –  believes speaking out has been worth it, but the accompanying pressure means it comes at a cost.

She says she ran into a charity worker friend in the street who told her there had been a knock-on effect from the school meals campaign on the shielding boxes provided to the vulnerable during lockdown – also by Chartwells. “She got asked to help a man unpack his box because there was twice as much in it as he’s used to,” Roadside Mum says. Her friend also told her “how the improvements to school meal provision have impacted a lot of people that she works with”.

“I feel like the nation agrees with the cause and the outcome and that’s a very powerful comfort,” Roadside Mum explains. “There’s a sense of relief and positivity that it’s sorted out and I know that people are with me… But it’s a lot to take on and, in another way, I feel very under-qualified to be doing this.”

Her biggest takeaway from the whirlwind, she says, is that the structural problems of child poverty in the UK are, in part, caused by “pointedly ignoring the voice of the people it affects”. 

“If I wanted to do a TV show called ‘On Benefits and Not Ashamed’, there’d be thousands of production companies lining up behind me,” says Roadside Mum. “There are any number of media outlets prepared to use that kind of exploitative tone and present me as either stupid or feckless or dirty or any other negative stereotype. 

“But to have a voice and say ‘we need to discuss the issues and these are really important and something does actually need to change’, you can’t get that voice [heard]. I’ve tried very hard to get that voice into the discussion and it’s had some success but not nearly as much success as it should have had.

“We have got to start centring the voices of people in poverty in discussions on poverty. Marcus Rashford can get a meeting with Vicky Ford and I can’t. That’s ridiculous. That’s my lunch. But I had no voice at that table.”

Byline Times will be publishing an article by Roadside Mum next week

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