A total of 470 primary schools countrywide have been refused a place on a Government-funded pilot scheme to give children a hot meal during the day.
The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which earlier this month announced 36 schools would benefit in the coming weeks from the scheme, had repeatedly declined to disclose the scale of oversubscription.
However, records released under the Freedom of Information Act show 506 schools applied – 14 times the number of places available.
The Society of St Vincent de Paul, which works on issues including food poverty, said the figure "illustrates the seriousness" of the problem of families struggling to feed their children.
The Central Statistics Office’s survey of income and living conditions estimates that one in 11 people in Ireland experience food poverty - defined as the inability to afford, or to have access to, the food needed to make up a healthy diet.
Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty described the response to the scheme as "enthusiastic". She said recently that more than 6,600 pupils would benefit from the pilot scheme, 600 fewer than announced in May.
The list of the schools that applied suggests there are principals overseeing more than 90,000 children who believe free hot meals are needed in their schools. Among the 506 schools that applied for the scheme, drawn from every county in the State, pupil numbers ranged from 10 to more than 700.
A third of applicants are not designated under the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (Deis) scheme, which gives extra support and resources to children in deprived areas. More than 300 of the schools said they have no cooking facilities, while more than 50 said they had no running water for cooking.
In a letter to the 470 schools refused a place on the scheme, the department said the 36 successful schools were “selected randomly, giving regard to geographical spread, numbers enrolled, range of suppliers and the overall budget available for the pilot”. Ms Doherty said €1 million would be spent on the hot meal scheme this year and €2.5 million next year.
What does the St Vincent de Paul say?
Tricia Keilthy, St Vincent de Paul’s social policy development officer, said the scheme would benefit homeless families who do not have access to cooking facilities as well as low income households struggling to make ends meet.
She said the number of schools that applied for inclusion “illustrates the seriousness of the situation for many families as witnessed by the schools”.
Food poverty is the most common issue affecting callers seeking help from St Vincent de Paul, according to the charity, which said it spends €1 million every month feeding families.
“Our experience shows that food is an area of expenditure that families have discretion over on a day-to-day basis,” said Ms Keilthy. “It is much easier to control the cost of food than the cost of rent, utilities or education for example. So food is typically what families cut back on when times are tough.”
Fianna Fáil social protection spokesman Willie O’Dea said there is no need to run a pilot scheme at all as the benefits of providing hot meals to pupils who need them should be apparent.
“The whole purpose of running a pilot scheme is to see if the scheme will do any good. You don’t have to run a pilot scheme to see if it is good that kids from deprived backgrounds get a hot meal. That is self-evidently good,” he said. “Given the scale of the problem the Government is only scratching the surface. This is gesture politics.”
The hot school meal scheme followed a “proof-of-concept project” that started at Our Lady of Lourdes National School in Goldenbridge, Dublin, at the beginning of the year.