Free school meals: Are they a good idea?

All Deis pupils are soon to get free hot meals, with the State strongly pledging meals for all schools by 2030. But what some see as a game changer, others see as a shocking waste of food


Every child in a Deis primary school will get a hot meal from September, with Government giving a pledge to“strongly support” a target of a free hot school meal for every child by 2030.

Deis schools, which are mainly in poorer areas, support children who are at risk of or who are experiencing educational disadvantage.

The hot school meals scheme was piloted in 2019 by then minister for social affairs Regina Doherty, and has expanded each year since.

But are free school meals really such a good idea? What some see as a game changer in boosting access to nutritious meals, others see as a monumental waste of food.

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In this piece, first published in September, we spoke to several schools to get feedback on how the new meals are going down. Like a pudding, the proof of the meals has been in their eating, or not, as the case may be.

‘I firmly believe it aids concentration’

– St Thomas’ Senior National School, Tallaght

St Thomas’ was one of the schools included in the pilot project when hot school lunches were initially rolled out. The programme has, according to principal John Rennick, been a great success. Lunches are delivered to the school daily at midday and distributed to the classes in individual boxes designed to keep meals warm for up to three hours.

The hot lunches are an established part of the school routine now and Rennick says they have had a definite impact on academic application, especially in the afternoon.

“I do firmly believe now that it aids the concentration,” says Rennick, “the nutrients that are in them, I think they fuel the body and the brain as well”.

Rennick says the hot lunches give the students an opportunity to try new foods while also playing a part in addressing obesity. “This is an avenue for kids to explore new foods and I think the food probably gives the kids a more balanced diet, so there’s a greater chance they’re getting three out of their ‘five a day’.”

Another area Rennick has noticed unexpected positive developments is in the realm of social interactions. “It’s basic table manners and the social skills that come from a conversation, you know, chatting to your friends beside you over a hot food hot meal.”

Rennick is keen to continue promoting the hot lunches within the school and encourages parents to compromise when their child isn’t keen on eating them.

“I would be willing to compromise on that, but I don’t want to put it down . . . because the benefits of the hot meal, in my opinion, are more beneficial than not,” says Rennick. In cases where a child may be reluctant to eat the meals, it compromises by allowing the child to try the food for two days of each week.

‘Socially, it’s having a massive impact’

– St Saviour’s National School, Ballybeg, Waterford

Introducing a new programme in schools can often demand an increase in workload for staff while they iron out the creases of the new routine, however, at St Saviour’s the transition to the hot meals has been described as “seamless”.

The parents order the meals on a Thursday for the following week and the food is delivered each morning. “It is a very easy process for the schools,” says deputy principal Etain Aylward. Their lunch provider employs a lunch operative who manages the distribution of the lunches throughout the school.

Aylward says the choice on offer to the students is varied and healthy. Students can adjust their meals online too if they prefer a plainer option. “It introduces the children to food like beef and chicken and other food they may not want to eat at home but when they’re exposed to them in school, they will,” says Aylward. The provider offers vegetarian options and caters for religious and cultural dietary requirements.

The changeover to hot lunches has resulted in an increase in waste produced by the school and their lunch provider has provided extra bins to cater for this. All schools have reported a significant increase in waste, and in some cases the provider takes the waste away.

Aylward has also noted the opportunity the hot lunches have created for increased social interaction. “It’s developing a culture of sitting down together and having a meal . . . it’s lovely, they actually sit down and converse, because they’re sitting down over their meal,” says Aylward.

She believes the social benefits of the hot meals are more impactful than the nutritional: “Socially, it’s having a massive impact.”

The limited free time available in a school’s timetable means that schools are often required to use “eating time” as “teaching time”. Aylward says the mealtime routine offers opportunities to develop oral language in an informal and organic way.

“We can try to teach oral language, but there’s a natural opportunity to develop their oral language while they are seated and practising the art of conversation. We’re hitting our goals in the language curriculum.”

‘The waste at the moment is absolutely shocking’

– St Brigid’s Junior School, Tallaght

It was the principle of the Hot Meal Scheme that really appealed to Maeve Cloke, principal at St. Brigid’s Junior School. “Giving children a hot meal during the day, more nutritious and healthier food. We were also thinking of some of the children who might not get a hot meal in the evening. It was for all those positive reasons we said we’d try it out,” says Cloke.

While Cloke has found the supplier of the lunches to be excellent and the food itself to be nutritious, she would like to see some significant changes to the programme based on her experience of it at St Brigid’s.

“Our teachers are concerned because there are now children, who were previously eating the cold lunches at school, who are no longer eating at school,” says Cloke. She believes that the scheme is too rigid for junior eaters and thinks it needs to be more flexible.

“I think it is a combination of things. With this age group, they’re slower eaters,” says Cloke. “They’re also notoriously picky eaters and that age group can have a very limited palette.”

Cloke believes changing the portion size to one more suitable for students in junior schools might help.

“The same hot meal comes in for a sixth-class student and a six-year-old child. So, you’re giving the same amount of food that you’d give to a sixth-class child to a six-year-old and they just can’t eat it in that time.”

A portion size tailored to a younger eater might also help reduce the amount of waste. “The waste at the moment is absolutely shocking,” says Cloke.

Cloke was initially enthusiastic about the scheme but with fewer than a fifth of the students in a class eating a full lunch, the experience has left her with some concerns she would like to see addressed.

“What I would like is for families to be able to choose. So that the children who are eating a hot lunch in school and enjoying it could still do that but the children that aren’t they still have the sandwich option,” says Cloke.

‘Younger classes are less enthused’

– St Malachy’s Boys National School, Edenmore, Dublin 5

The hot lunches that began last year are proving popular at St Malachy’s Boys National School. Students pre-order their lunches from a choice of five options and they are delivered to the school daily. Sixth-class teacher Paul O’Shea says that, while it doesn’t take up any extra time for him in class, it has increased the workload on their caretaker.

“It doesn’t take up any more of my time at all, we have them eaten and binned within the 10 minutes,” says O’Shea, “However it does take up a good chunk of our caretaker’s time as he has to put the lunches on, sort them into the crates after cooking and then bring the crates round to the classes.”

O’Shea says the meals on offer are nutritious and balanced and that there is always a vegan option. He says that the lunches are popular with his sixth-class students and that he raffles off spare ones to those who are interested. “That being said, it’s my understanding that the younger classes are less enthused,” says O’Shea.

There has been a noticeable improvement in behaviour in class during mealtimes. “It also tends to be a bit calmer in the class than when the kids were eating sandwiches,” says O’Shea.