Calls for hot school-meal scheme to be expanded

One school in area designated ‘very disadvantaged’ is only one excluded from programme

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Campaigners are calling for a massive expansion in the free hot school-meals programme saying the exclusion of thousands of children, even in the poorest areas, is “deeply unjust”. 

The calls come as it emerged a school in an area designated as “very disadvantaged” is the only one in its community excluded from the programme.

Knockmore junior school in Killinarden, west Tallaght, learned in March that while the 1,040 children attending the four other primary schools locally would get free hot lunches from next week, its 149 children, aged between four and eight years, would not.

Though they continue to qualify for free school meals, including sandwiches and fruit daily, principal Dearbhla Byrne said their exclusion from hot meals was “deeply unfair” and an “injustice that must be righted”.

Staff, parents and pupils at the Deis (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) primary school, and at others, are “angry and hurt”. They have begun a campaign with more than 500 petition signatories and postcards to Minister for Social Protection, Heather Humphreys, calling on her to “right this wrong”.

The hot school-meals programme, initiated in as a pilot in 2019 by then minister Regina Doherty, at a cost of €1 million, was extended in 2020 to 6,744 children in 37 schools, costing €2.5 million. This year an additional €5.5 million has been allocated to benefit 35,000 more children.

Lottery

Schools are chosen partially by lottery. Having issued invitations for expressions of interest to 705 primary schools the department received 281 applications at the end of last year.

A spokeswoman explained the 35,000 places were allocated on a pro-rata basis, depending on the number of children for whom applications had been made in each local authority area, with a minimum of one successful school for each council area. “Thereafter, a process of random selection was used for each area,” she said. In all 189 schools were selected of which 171 are Deis. In 2019 there were 183,000 pupils attending 896 Deis schools.

As a result, while Cnoc Mhuire (Knockmore) senior school’s eight to 12 year-olds, on the same grounds as Knockmore JS’s children, will get hot school meals, as will those at nearby Sacred Heart junior and senior schools, and Scoil Chaitlín Maude, children such as Faith O’Brien, Bobby Comerford, Jacob Murray and Carter Dempsey in senior infants will not.

Many have siblings in the senior school. Almost all have neighbours and cousins in the local schools. “I have a big sister and she will be getting hot lunches. It’s just not fair,” says Faith (5).

Unemployment rates

Killinarden is classified by independent agency Pobal as “very disadvantaged” with unemployment rates of up to 44 per cent, where 60 per cent of families with children are headed by lone parents and just 6 per cent of the adult population has third-level education.

Ms Byrne cites “very real practical problems” for parents with children in both junior and senior schools “trying to figure out what to cook in the evening. If one child has already had a hot lunch, does everyone end up with just a snack for their tea?

“This has exposed children to being disadvantaged again, now even within their own community.”

Taking issue with the lottery system she says. “If the Government has realised there is a need for this, especially in Deis schools, they should just roll it out to all Deis schools. A lottery is not good enough when it comes to giving disadvantaged children a hot meal.”

Echoing her, local TD Paul Murphy (People Before Profit) said: “Any Deis schools that applies for hot meals should get them.”

‘Very unfair’

It was “very unfair” the majority of Killinarden’s children would get hot school meals while 149 “will be left out”.

Senator Lynn Ruane, from the area, said the situation “creates inequality within families and between neighbours…This has to be remedied and the parents who are clearly saying they need this support, must be heard. A school is not designated Deis for no reason…The whole hot meals system needs to be expanded to all Deis schools.”

The department spokeswoman said Ms Humphreys was “absolutely committed to continuing to grow the hot school meals [programme] and building further on the significant extension announced in Budget 2021. She is currently exploring options for the possible inclusion of unsuccessful schools”.