The whole story can be distilled from the single conversation that started it all. A few weeks ago, Marcus Rashford was sitting at home with his family, watching the news pour in and the storm clouds gather.
Country after country was going into lockdown because of the coronavirus: Italy first, then Spain, then France. It seemed it was only a matter of time before Britain followed suit. Rashford and his family, like the rest of us, started chewing over what might happen next, all the what-ifs that come with a great unknown, as he put it.
But as they talked, Rashford found himself thinking less about how the crisis might affect him as he is now — a Premier League star, a household name, a multimillionaire athlete, the homegrown jewel in Manchester United’s crown — and more about how it would have affected him as he was then.
What happened next, in terms of its speed and scale, was remarkable. In the space of a few weeks, Rashford went from searching for charities that work to alleviate hunger to providing the impetus for a campaign that has, so far, helped provide more than two million British children with food.
(Here is how fast it has grown: When Rashford first agreed to a Zoom interview late last month, the figure stood at 1.3 million; by the time the interview happened, he said proudly that it was 1.76 million; a week or so later, he posted to his social media pages that the total had surpassed two million.)
But all of it came about only because, for all that his life has changed beyond recognition in the last five years, Rashford’s reflex is still to think from the perspective of what his life was like before.
He remembers it as clear as day, right down to the route numbers of the buses he had to take to get from his home, in Northern Moor, in Manchester’s southern sprawl, to training with United’s academy in Salford, to the east of the city: “The 41 into town, then the 143 to Salford.” He remembers how touched he was when one of his mother’s friends volunteered to drive him in her car, even though it was out of her way.
He remembers the rhythm of his days: his mother, Melanie, leaving for work at 8 a.m.; arriving at school a little after that for what is known in Britain as breakfast club, where children who have not had a chance to eat at home are offered porridge, eggs, toast and orange juice.
He remembers that, of his group of five close friends, three would eat packed lunches, provided from home. He would often ask one of them to “get his dad to put an extra biscuit in for me.” He remembers that his school meals were paid for by the state and that there was a stigma, one he did not understand, to being a free school meal kid.
And he remembers that there were children in his school “who had it far tougher,” whose parents struggled with depression or drug dependency or did not work or were “never there.” Their home lives made him feel as if he were one of the lucky ones.
That he remembers all of that should not, really, be a surprise. Soccer players age in a curious way. They seem, in some lights, eternally young, the consequence of a life lived exclusively in the pursuit of their profession, stripped of any and all experiences that are not directly related to on-field performance. From another angle, they are prematurely old, teenagers and young adults eroded, a little, by the sorts of intense pressures few of us encounter so early in our careers.
Rashford is a case in point. He was 18 when he careered into soccer’s consciousness in 2016, scoring twice for Manchester United against Arsenal in his Premier League debut. Within four months, he was on England’s squad for the European Championship. Since then, he has become a fixed star in the Premier League firmament, arguably the central figure at United, if not officially the club’s captain then, to some extent, an avatar of its soul.
And yet for all that he has done, as established a presence as he is, Rashford is only 22. “The day after his debut, he went back to school,” John Shiels, the chief executive of Manchester United’s charitable foundation, said.
Most of Rashford’s friends are now “starting to leave university,” he said, and take their first steps into careers that might last for decades. His time as a soccer player, he knows, will not last that long. It is a life condensed. He remembers what things used to be like, in other words, because it was not that long ago.
“I always said that if I was ever in a position to make a difference, then I would,” Rashford said. He never took for granted the kindnesses that were shown to him. It is why, he said, he makes a point of stopping for pictures with fans. An act that small, he feels, might just change a life.
The causes he chooses to support tend to be ones that are close to his heart: He has judged poetry competitions, learned sign language, encouraged children to read. Last Christmas, Rashford began an initiative to encourage people to donate boxes of essential items to three charities working with Manchester’s homeless population. “He’s a Manchester lad,” Shiels said. “Those things mean a lot to him.”
It was also why, in March, when he started thinking about what lockdown would have been like for him as he was, about what it would have meant to him not to be allowed to go to school, his first thought was about those children, like him, who relied on school to provide food.
“I didn’t really have an option but to go to breakfast club,” he said. “But I enjoyed it. I was with my friends from 8 in the morning to 6 at night, when my Mum came to pick me up. The schools are obliged to give kids the right sort of food, the food they need, whereas with a packed lunch it could be anything. I know there is a stigma to it, but it never made sense to me, really.”
That, then, is where the current story began. Rashford did his research. Some 1.5 million children qualify for free school meals in England, and as many as 700,000 more live in poverty but do not have access to such programs, according to the Children’s Society, a charity that works to support vulnerable children. “It is shocking, really,” he said.
He had an idea, but only a vague one. “We wanted to help, but we didn’t really know where to start,” he said. He has learned, from experience, that having money and a desire to help is not enough, that there are thousands of unforeseen complications.
He looked at a handful of charities that might have fit the bill before alighting on FareShare.
“We wanted to reach as many people as possible,” Rashford said. He made a donation, and set about promoting FareShare’s work as much as he could. It was not an idea he had and left behind: Rashford gets updates every few days about how the work is going. (Rashford says he is more concerned by the number of children reached than the amount of money he has raised.) That first conversation was about eight weeks ago. Since then, FareShare has seen the amount of donated food double; it has been deluged with donations of cash, too.
At the same time, demand for its services is three times greater than it used to be. According to a report by the Food Foundation, 200,000 children in Britain have missed meals during lockdown because their families “could not access food,” while half a million more who normally rely on free school meals have received no substitute at all.
Rashford does not, particularly, want credit for his efforts trying to fill that gap. He is quick to offer praise to the supermarkets that have donated food, the “big companies” that have stepped up. “I didn’t make it happen,” he said. “I just gave them that extra push.”
He is not finished. He will, he said, continue to look for other ways to help, even after lockdown has ended and the schools reopen. But he has done, for now, what he set out to do, what was at the root of the conversation that started it all: Rashford, as he is now, has been able to help Rashford, as he was then.