LEEDS, England – Ali Moghadam sat down at the end of a busy lunch shift trying to figure out how much food he had just given away.

At first glance, he thought there were around 40 packed lunches, each containing a sandwich, a drink, a piece of fruit, and something sweet. All of this had come from his own inventory. The wages he would pay the additional employee hired to meet the demand would also come out of his own pocket.

He didn’t know many of the people who’d come in with their children to claim one. Some had left a message on Facebook. Others had called beforehand. Some had just shown up and asked gently at the cash register. Mr. Moghadam had asked no questions. With a smile he just handed over a bag.

Like all small businesses, this has been a difficult year for Yorkshire Crust, the compact deli with gleaming tables and intricately lit lighting that Mr. Moghadam runs in Horsforth, a suburb of Leeds. It had to close for eight weeks during the lockdown and initially only reopened as a take-out service.

The UK’s summer social gathering loosening provided some respite, he said, but now he’s faced with stricter limits: England is expected to be locked again on Thursday, which means only essential stores will be allowed to open . If Mr Moghadam wants to continue trading, it must be done again as a take-out.

When a customer called recently and pointed out a campaign that was gaining traction on social media, Mr. Moghadam didn’t hesitate to join the effort. He wrote on Facebook that Yorkshire Crust would offer free lunches to children for the duration of the fall break. “It kind of went viral,” he said of his post. “I think about 8,000 people saw it.”

The story has been lived and told thousands of times across the UK lately: not just by cafes and restaurants and pubs and bars, but also by law firms, tailors and private individuals.

It is a story that, even at a time of great rifts in British society and politics, largely despised Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative government. And it’s a story whose root is an unlikely unitary figure: the 23-year-old Manchester United and England football star, Marcus Rashford.

During the lockdown, Mr Rashford launched a campaign to donate food to the 1.5 million children in England who qualify for free school meals. With schools closed to keep the coronavirus from spreading, these kids missed out on what is possibly the most reliable source of food. He said he was given free school meals as a child so that he knew how valuable they were.

In June, he forced the government – which initially refused – into an embarrassing climb, which resulted in the program being extended to include the six-week summer vacation. Recently, he has asked the legislature to extend the provision for a further six months, over the autumn break and the school holidays at Christmas and Easter.

Despite the fact that more than a million people had signed a petition calling on the government to extend the program – and warnings from at least one member of Mr Johnson’s party that refusing to change course “misread the national sentiment “- the proposal was rejected this month in Parliament.

One conservative lawmaker said he was against the “nationalization of children”. Another was accused of appearing to have pointed out that the distribution of grocery vouchers “effectively” passed money on to “crack dens and brothels”.

Anne Longfield, the Child Commissioner for England, suggested that a debate be held on whether “hungry and vulnerable children should have enough to eat,” “strikingly similar to what we would expect in the chapters of ‘Oliver Twist’.”

But after the vote to reject Mr Rashford’s plan, first dozen, then hundreds, and finally thousands of companies, large and small, volunteered to fill the void the government had left.

“We just wanted to do what we can,” said Claire Burrow, operations manager at Olivia’s Kitchen, a catering company in Gateshead, north east England. Orders have plummeted in recent months – especially in conference centers that are currently unable to host events – and the company has had to lay off employees.

Not far from Mr. Moghadam’s Yorkshire Crust, Aylish Griffiths opened her bakery in Rawdon, near Leeds, a few weeks ago. As a former teacher, she volunteered to take part in the campaign – “Just the thought of some of the children I worked with were hungry” – and said she fully expected to pay for lunch herself take.

“But we had so many people, just from the local community, donating money or giving food to do their part,” she said, standing over dozens of paper bags filled with sandwiches and biscuits ready to go. “We didn’t ask about them. It was nice to see people come together. “

Most of the donors have broadly followed the same approach as Mr Moghadam in distributing lunches. Some request a Facebook message or call to measure demand. Nobody asks any questions. “There is a stigma attached to free school meals,” said Simeon Brown, owner of Simplery, a bakery and coffee shop in Harehills, Leeds. “People call because they may be embarrassed to come in and ask.”

Tony Grice, the owner of Fika, a Scandinavian-style cafe in Liverpool, was concerned about the same thing. To get around this, he sends coupons to anyone who inquires on Facebook or over the phone. “You can come in with a screenshot or a printout and we can ask what you want straight away,” he said. “On the first day, Monday, we wondered if people might be too proud to come in, but Tuesday was different.”

On that day, he and his staff served 60 free breakfasts and prepared 100 packed lunches. By afternoon three quarters of them had left. “It’s disgusting that we’re so unemployed and so many people are starving in 2020,” Grice said.

It is a feeling many of those who have joined Mr Rashford’s campaign share. “You never think it’ll happen in your community,” said Mr. Brown, the Leeds bakery owner. “But it’s pretty real and it’s just around the corner.”

What Mr. Rashford seems to have done is to illustrate the scale of the problem to thousands who might otherwise not have understood. His Twitter feed lately has been little more than a list of businesses big and small offering free school meals or hunger relief programs. He barely mentioned the three goals he scored for Manchester United in the Champions League last week.

He says he has no intention of giving up; and many of those who have joined his campaign. For all costs involved, Mr Grice said he intended to do the same deal this Christmas: free breakfast and lunch for all the kids who need them with no questions asked.

“We’ll definitely do it again,” he said. “We’ll keep going until the government changes its mind.”

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