Hot school meals for all a solid start in battle against child poverty

We trail our European cousins when it comes to providing nourishment to school children

Our Lady of Lourdes, Goldenbridge, Inchicore, Dublin. Zofia and Jodie with second-class teacher Aishling O ‘Dywer and Tonya Hanly, principal of Our Lady of Lourdes Goldenbridge. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times.

Our Lady of Lourdes, Goldenbridge, Inchicore, Dublin. Zofia and Jodie with second-class teacher Aishling O ‘Dywer and Tonya Hanly, principal of Our Lady of Lourdes Goldenbridge. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times.

 

It was heralded as a long-overdue opportunity to help children and struggling families. A Government-funded pilot scheme to provide hot meals to school children was supposed to bring Ireland into line with other European countries.

But records released under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Department of Social Protection turned down 470 primary schools who applied to the scheme. While 36 will benefit from the move, campaigners say that free hot meals in schools should be more widely available.

Tonya Hanly is school principal at Our Lady of Lourdes school in Inchicore, Dublin 8, where “proof of concept” – seeing how the scheme would work in practice – was first rolled out.

“The children here are a source of hope and I love coming in here every day,” she says. “We have a lot of support from parents and the wider local community but, like many schools, we do have children that come from stressed environments, including some who are homeless.

“Some families don’t have access to cooking facilities. The lives of these children can be tough. They can’t even go outside to play. They often have to be down for breakfast in the hotel before the other guests.

“School is the only consistency: their parents, placed in homeless accommodation far from Inchicore, still travel long distances to get them here, because they want their children to at least have the comfort of their familiar school with their familiar friends.”

Homelessness is one reason why a child might not get enough to eat. Poverty, or even a very tight month, means that even the best and most loving parents might have to cut back on food – or, at least, cut back on nutritious food.

Domestic violence or addiction are problems in some homes. Where children are physically or sexually abused, or neglected, they may also be deprived of food. Sometimes, children experience a complex confluence of some or all of these factors.

“There are children going to school hungry in schools across Ireland today,” says Dr Paul Downes, director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre at DCU’s Institute of Education, which has advocated for this policy since 2013. “This has educational consequences: it affects their concentration, motivation, performance and how they interact with their peers and teachers. It’s not rocket science: we all need food to function well.

“A hot meal changes the dynamic: they are in better humour and they sleep better. A hot meal is an incentive for children to come to school. A hot meal addresses the need for healthy eating as well as preventing hunger. This initiative represents a landmark shift in Irish educational policy. It is a very welcome development but now it needs to go further and should be phased in as a universal, routine feature.”

Hot meals taste better and are more easily digested, albeit as part of a balanced diet involving raw foods. But why should reasonably wealthy parents who can well afford to feed their children be subsidised from the public purse?

“Ireland is playing catch-up in this area,” says Downes. “Free hot meals are a routine, unremarkable feature in many school systems, from the UK to Lithuania, including under conservative governments. At a minimum, they should be rolled out to all four- to seven-year-olds.

“Beyond that, we could consider a sliding scale of subsidies, but it is key that no child is stigmatised. Rather than have committees of professionals making intrusive judgements into children’s lives, we need to feed children. It should be a basic requirement and priority that children are not left hungry in school.”

Advice to struggling families to “shop around” can be patronising, educators and charities agree. Decent, home-cooked meals require herbs, spices and oils for flavour and texture. Struggling families whose electricity is on a meter may not even be to turn on the oven.

“And while fruit and vegetables are important, they won’t fill a child in the same way a high-calorie, low-quality frozen pizza will.

Research from Safefood, carried out in 2018, shows that it costs a two-parent, two-child household €153 per week to feed a family of four with realistic, acceptable and nutritionally adequate food every week. Low-income households need to spend up to a third of their income on food, and food costs rise as children grow older.

“About a third of our calls come from people struggling to pay for food,” says Dr Tricia Keilthy, head of social justice at St Vincent de Paul (SVP). “Food is the one area they have discretion over, whereas they can’t cut back on rent or the bills they pay. Healthy food is more expensive to buy and families are limited if they aren’t close to a big supermarket, don’t have a car to shop around, and have to buy from the local, more expensive convenience store.”

Research carried out by SVP shows that parents are cutting back on their own food so their children can eat. “Families on low incomes do employ strategies to reduce food costs: they might make a big stew and try to stretch it over the week, but even the best efforts can fall short. A hot meal for children, five days a week, is so important to these families.”

There are some practical difficulties, however. Not all schools have canteen facilities, but Hanly and other school principals are addressing this by having outside caterers provide the meals. The staff have all been very enthusiastic, says Hanly, and the caterers have provided halal food and ensured that no child is excluded by allergies.

Distributing the delivered food is a logistic obstacle for schools that don’t have a canteen. “The food arrives every day at 12.10pm and is delivered by sixth-class students to the other classrooms,” Hanly explains. “Through the student council, the children are in regular conversations with representatives from the lunch company . . . Ultimately, this initiative means that, irrespective of circumstances, every child at least gets a hot meal.”

Parent, teacher and child: All would benefit from school meals

Hunger everywhere
“Children are going hungry all around us. Wealthier Irish Times readers might not realise that any child, irrespective of their social background, can experience persistent hunger. It happens to children they know, in families they know.

“We have fostered a child from a very well-off family living in a big house in a leafy suburb who was badly neglected: he was going to his fee-paying school without breakfast or a packed lunch, and not even given enough money to buy one. He was constantly passing out in school from hunger and he missed out on learning as a result. He has so much catching up to do. A guaranteed hot meal every day would have made a world of difference.”

Child’s experience
“When I was in school, I was lucky most days to have meals at home let alone lunch in school. It was really embarrassing sitting with friends at lunchtime and never having any food with you, stomach growling like mad and having to make up fibs like you forgot money or food, or you weren’t hungry, because being from a poorer household was incredibly embarrassing and did attract a lot of other kids picking on you. Free school meals would have made it hard to single out the kids who really needed that free food, and would have been a huge relief to parents like mine who struggled to keep us fed.”

A teacher speaks
“I’m a secondary school teacher. We don’t have the facilities to provide hot lunches. If we did, it would make a huge difference in terms of mood, health and concentration. The option of healthy hot food would really benefit students, especially those who might struggle with money at home.

A parent’s perspective
“All working parents would benefit from this. After paying the mortgage, bills and childcare every month, almost all our disposable income goes on food. After a long day at work, we come home and cook dinner, tidy up and do the homework. By the time it’s all done, and lunches are prepared for the next day, the kids have to go to bed.

“My husband and I could both have a subsidised hot meal for lunch in work; if the kids were fed in school too – as is fairly standard in many European countries . We could just have a sandwich in the evening and actually focus on spending time with the kids. Instead, the slog is never-ending.”

Disabled parents
“For health reasons, my husband and I are out of work. We both have disabilities. I got struck with meningitis. Financially, it has been suffocating. Hot, healthy, well-prepared food for my boys during school days would make such a difference. My older son can get a breakfast and lunch in school for just €3 a day. That’s very reasonable but some weeks we still can’t afford it. There are children and families worse off than us, and a hot meal in school might be the only one they get all day.”

Parental long view
“In Finland, providing a meal at school improved economic productivity. It freed parents from the need to stay home to provide lunch for schoolkids.

“I would love this as a parent. Hopefully our kids’ school will have a pilot scheme up and running soon [the school didn’t get into this summer’s round of applicants]. It would help give us back of bit of time in the evenings and reduce our shopping bill – school lunches . . . add up.”

School on the margins
“I am a teacher in a Deis 1 urban school. Many of our children come to school hungry and we give all children toast. In the winter we provide soup for the children with bread rolls in the classroom before they go out on yard. This soup is prepared by a group of volunteer parents who come into school each day to prep, cook and wash up afterwards. The children are all entitled and offered free healthy school lunches as part of the Schools Completion Programme which is part funded by the school. The Department [of Education] should provide all Deis schools with hot meals and adequate resources to serve them.”

Unconvinced parent
“I would be extremely reluctant to sign up to a hot meal scheme, I have no control over the food provenance. I try to buy ethically and I try to buy high-quality food. I’m not always perfect and lately there has been an increase in processed food in our house as life has been a bit crazy, but typically our food is made by me or my husband from scratch. I give the kids a packed lunch every day, plain food, and they get a home-cooked evening meal. For me the hot food in the middle of the day would undermine that and may encourage poor eating habits.”

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