Footballer Mesut Ozil says healthy meals for children should be a given – not a privilege, after he led the distribution of 1,400 meals to schools across north London every day this week.
The Arsenal midfielder teamed up with renowned German chef Stefan Pappert at the start of the pandemic to provide healthy meals to families living in poverty, homeless shelters and charities that support refugees.
Ozil is among a number of footballers, including Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, leading the charge on the issue of free meals for children during school holidays.
Last week, the government rejected a Labour bill to extend free school meals, prompting Ozil to scale up his project and provide 1,400 extra meals every day.
“During the half-term, lots of kids are facing a tough situation with regards to food,” he said in an exclusive interview. “No child should go hungry. That’s the most important thing and wherever I can help I will.”
Ozil’s team, which includes Pappert and project manager Parsa Sadigh, have distributed thousands of meals to families across Brent, Burnt Oak and Edgware – in some of north London’s most deprived communities.
“There’s a real emphasis on making sure the food is healthy, nutritious and also filling. So we’re using the finest organic pasta which my friend Alberto Franceschi sent from Italy,” Ozil said. “Healthy meals for children should be a given, and not a privilege.”
Pappert, who has previously cooked for the Queen, said everyone should be treated like royalty.
“Everyone is special, and for us it was important to look after the children with good food that is healthy too. So we have fresh vegetables and organic pasta.”
Over the half term, the team worked through the night with help from Barnet Sunday League footballers who packed the meals into individual lunchboxes. By 7am, a line of black cabs queued up outside the kitchen in Knightsbridge, ready to make deliveries to 12 schools.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there is £63m available specifically to help deal with holiday hunger. According to mum-of-nine Zoe Collingbourne, that is not enough.
“The holidays are awful,” she said. “Prices are going up, and with children being at home a lot of the time, it makes it worse because they eat more. They get bored, they eat more. So I think the government is wrong.”
Zoe picks up meals provided by Ozil at Orion Primary School which has the biggest request for help – 400 of its students rely on free school meals.
Headteacher Chris Flathers said the project took a little encouragement because of bad weather.
“On Tuesday it was pouring with rain so we went out in the minibus and handed out the meals to families on the estate,” he said.
Meals supplied by Ozil’s team have helped Unitas Youth Zone in Burnt Oak, Edgware, throughout the pandemic.
“Burnt Oak and nearby Colindale have the two highest rates of child poverty in Barnet,” explained Unitas chief executive Tony Lewis.
“Since lockdown, Unitas has supported over 100 families with [Mesut Ozil’s] team donating 50 meals a week to Unitas, as well as 50 each to two other local charities. On top of that, Mesut’s team has donated 200 meals a day to the Youth Zone for its October half-term holiday club provision.”
Earlier this month, Ozil rescued the job of Jerry Quy, who works as Arsenal’s mascot Gunnersaurus, after the club moved to make the role redundant.
The Germany playmaker has also previously provided meals to 100,000 people in refugee camps across Turkey and Syria, and paid for children to have life-saving surgeries in South America.
He told Sky News his most recent humanitarian endeavour has been the result of a collective effort.
“I’m proud to be involved in this project and want to thank everyone helping out, especially Stefan Pappert, our excellent chef from Germany, Parsa Sadigh for his organisation and my good friend Alberto Franceschi.”