About 1.3 million children will get free school meal vouchers during the holidays, following a campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford.
The Manchester United forward, 22, welcomed the six-week voucher for eligible children, saying: “Look at what we can do when we come together.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the move was a “welcome U-turn”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised Mr Rashford’s “contribution to the debate around poverty”.
All children eligible for free school meals in term time in England will benefit from the “Covid summer food fund”, Downing Street said.
The support works out as about £15 a week per recipient, and will cost about £120m.
BBC political correspondent Chris Mason said he was told this was “additional funding agreed by the Treasury”.
In an open letter to MPs posted on Monday, the Manchester United forward drew on his own experience of relying on free school meals and food banks growing up.
The footballer had asked others to think about struggling parents who have had their “water turned off” during the coronavirus lockdown, and whose children have gone hungry.
Families whose children qualify for free meals have received vouchers or parcels in lockdown.
While provision was already arranged to continue through the summer in Scotland and Wales, it was going to end in England at the end of term.
Almost 1.3 million school children in England – accounting for 15.4% of state-educated pupils – were eligible for and claiming free school meals, according to the latest available data.
Official figures for 2019 showed the need was greatest in parts of London, the north and Midlands where between a quarter and a third of all pupils were getting the free meals.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “Owing to the coronavirus pandemic the prime minister fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer.
“To reflect this we will be providing a Covid summer food fund. This will provide food vouchers covering the six-week holiday period.”
He added the measure was a response to the “unique circumstances of the pandemic” and would not continue beyond the summer. Those eligible will be children who already qualify for free school meals.
Referring to Mr Rashford, he added: “The PM welcomes his contribution to the debate around poverty and respects the fact that he has been using his profile as a leading sportsman to highlight important issues.”
As a striker with a killer instinct in front of goal, Marcus Rashford is used to beating defences.
And he’s cut straight through a nervous defensive wall of Conservative ministers – leaving them wrong-footed and facing an embarrassing own goal.
A number of Tory MPs had already voiced their disquiet – and how many of them really wanted to find themselves up against an England football hero, and the risk of children going hungry?
The U-turn means the government will pay the extra £120m to extend free school meal vouchers across the six weeks of the holidays, available to 1.3 million children.
It’s a one-off deal for the unprecedented pressure caused by the coronavirus – with food banks warning of growing demands.
But Rashford, and his 2.7 million Twitter followers, proved a tough target for the government – and he’s beaten them with a fast-footed appeal directly to public opinion.
MPs had been preparing to debate the issue of free school meals ending, in Parliament on Tuesday afternoon.
Tory MP Tim Loughton said he was “delighted” the government had “listened to Conservative backbenchers” – and opposition parties also welcomed the move.
The children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said she was pleased ministers had “seen sense and changed their minds”.
Ms Longfield, who wrote to Chancellor Rishi Sunak about the issue last week, added: “Free school meals are the last line of defence against poverty and hunger for many families.”
‘So much less stressful’
Sonja from near Basingstoke, who has three teenage children, said the government’s change of heart was “wonderful”.
She told BBC Radio 5 Live Drive she found herself out of work and relying on benefits because of the pandemic. She does not start her new job until September.
The free school meals vouchers have been a lifeline so far, Sonja says, adding that she was grateful to Mr Rashford for his campaign.
“[The U-turn] takes away that worry of the six-week summer holiday and makes it so much less stressful.” she said.
But she added: “I feel sad that it had to be a campaign. They have been throwing money to keep everyone afloat but left behind people on universal credit and free school meals.”
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