A Tory MP has quit her government job after voting for a Labour motion to offer free school meals during holidays until Easter 2021.
Caroline Ansell said vouchers were not a long-term solution – but they helped families struggling with the pandemic.
Footballer Marcus Rashford, who is leading a campaign on child hunger, urged MPs to “unite” and stop being influenced by “political affiliation”.
On Wednesday evening, MPs rejected the Labour motion by 322 votes to 261.
Home Office Minister Kit Malthouse insisted the government was helping low-income families through the welfare system.
He said the government had raised Universal Credit by £20 a week, adjusted housing benefit to help people with their rent and given £63m to councils to help with hardship funding.
He acknowledged the decision on free school meals was “a tough one” and praised Mr Rashford for his campaign to tackle child hunger.
Five Conservative MPs rebelled against their party by voting with Labour – including Ms Ansell who has now stepped down as parliamentary private secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Explaining her decision, she said: “In these unprecedented times I am very concerned to be doing all we can to help lower income families and their children who are really struggling due to the impact of the virus.”
She said that food vouchers were “not perfect” arguing that it is better to link meals to activities so children “can also benefit from extra-curricular learning and experience”.
However. she added that vouchers could help families in her Eastbourne constituency who were struggling as a result of the pandemic.
The government’s stance has also been criticised by Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, who tweeted: “If the government can subsidise Eat Out to Help Out, not being seen to give poor kids lunch in the school holidays looks mean and is wrong.”
Children of all ages living in households on income-related benefits may be eligible for free school meals.
In England, about 1.3 million children claimed for free school meals in 2019 – about 15% of state-educated pupils.
Analysis by the Food Foundation estimates a further 900,000 children in England may have sought free school meals since the start of the pandemic.
In Scotland, the government has made £10m available to local councils to continue to fund free school meals over the Christmas, February and Easter breaks. Local authorities that offered provision over the October school break can apply to be reimbursed.
The Welsh government has also pledged to extend free school meal provision to every school holiday until Easter 2021, spending £11m on doing so.
In England and Northern Ireland, however, the scheme will only run during term time.