Every child in a Deis primary school will get a hot meal from September, Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys will announce today, alongside a pledge to “strongly support” a target of a free hot school meal for every child by 2030.
She will also detail plans to begin expanding hot meals to non-Deis primary schools from 2024 and to increase rates paid to catering companies providing school meals – for the first time since the scheme started in 2003.
Deis schools, which are mainly in poorer areas, support children who are at risk of or who are experiencing educational disadvantage.
The announcement comes as a report, published today, finds the free hot meal is for some children the only hot food they get all day.
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For others there is “no food” at home and they bring left-over meals home to family, while for others their school meal is the only time they experience sitting at a table to eat socially, according to the evaluation of the school meals programme by the Department of Social Protection.
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Drawing on online responses from more than 773 school principals, 190 other providers of meals such as after-school and breakfast clubs and crèches, 407 parents of children receiving meals, children and workshops, it found the meals “reduced levels of food poverty among the children” and eased pressure on very tight budgets for many families.
Some 72 per cent of respondents said “various aspects of school meals were excellent or very good” and just three per cent said “they were poor or very poor”.
One principal said of hot meals: “We noticed a huge transformation with the kids in the afternoon. Some of the kids normally would be half asleep and not participating in the classes but now they’re awake because they have been fed.”
They said children had more energy, behaved better, had improved psychological and physical wellbeing, improved attendance, enjoyed the social aspect, connected better with each other and got on better with teachers.
Other comments from principals included: “We know anecdotally that children will often bring food from school because they may not have access to food” and “[There are] children arriving into school and the meals they get from us would be the only hot meal they would get that day”.
Another principal said: “We can talk about attendance and improving their academic path and I’m sure over the years we will have plenty of time to gather evidence in Ireland, but feeding a hungry child is something that we must do.”
A majority of schemes provide cold food, including breakfasts, lunch and snacks. The cost of providing cold meals has risen from €53.8 million in 2018 to €94.4 million this year and currently benefits almost 260,000 children in 1,600 schools.
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The hot school meals scheme was piloted in 2019 by then minister for social affairs Regina Doherty, and has expanded each year since. The cost of the scheme has increased from €1.5 million in its first year to almost €25 million in 2021/22. Sources within the Department say as costs increase there is increasing pressure from the Department of Expenditure to justify further expansion.
While the findings of the evaluation, which was conducted by RSM consultants, are overwhelmingly positive, it calls for a longitudinal study measuring school attendance as well as academic, physical and mental health and behavioural outcomes for children in receipt of meals.
The report’s “overarching recommendation” is that there “should be a universal school meals programme, with one free hot meal for every child in Ireland”.
Increased rates paid for the meals will be welcomed. The fact they had not been increased in 20 years caused many suppliers to warn they may have to withdraw, potentially leaving thousands of children without food during the school day.