Free hot meals could be introduced in all schools under proposed plan

Regina Doherty says she wants to introduce annual eye and dental checks for children

Minister for  Social Protection Regina Doherty: ‘The vast majority of our schools don’t have kitchens and we’re not going to retrofit all of the schools that don’t but there are other ways that we can do this’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty: ‘The vast majority of our schools don’t have kitchens and we’re not going to retrofit all of the schools that don’t but there are other ways that we can do this’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Free hot meals could be made available to every school in the country under a plan to be proposed by Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty.

Ms Doherty will on Monday launch the first Hot School Meals scheme before a larger pilot initiative is introduced to 36 schools in September.

Some 7,200 children will benefit from the scheme this September at a cost of €1 million for this year and €2.5 million in a full year.

The pilot will initially be targeted at primary schools which do not avail of the dinner option under the Department of Social Protection’s School Meals Programme and do not have canteen or kitchen facilities for preparation of the hot dinners on site.

A number of serious irregularities have been discovered in payments to schools under the free meals scheme. File photo: Thinkstock
A number of serious irregularities have been discovered in payments to schools under the free meals scheme. File photo: Thinkstock

In an interview with The Irish Times following the launch of the No Child 2020 series, Ms Doherty pledged to use the next budget to introduce the programme nationwide beyond the initial 7,200 students. A school in Inchicore in Dublin has been selected for the first part of the pilot.

“The vast majority of our schools don’t have kitchens and we’re not going to retrofit all of the schools that don’t but there are other ways that we can do this.” She said the first part of the pilot will run for four weeks.

“I hope by the end of February we will be putting the call out nationally to ask all of the other schools that would be interested in partaking.”

Thirty six schools will be selected at this stage and the hot meals programme will begin for those schools in September. The Minister said she will then push for the roll-out of hot meals nationally by seeking extra funding in the next budget.

Other treatment benefits

Ms Doherty said she is also looking to extend treatment benefits to children for yearly dental and eye check-ups. She said she also wants to see free school books extended to all children, and is also looking to extend the Department’s urgent needs payment to more families who find themselves falling into arrears on their rent.

This may help to curb the number of families presenting as homeless.

She said the yearly check-ups may only be dental at first, but may then be extended to eye tests.

Ms Doherty said she is examining ways to extend the urgent needs payment to more families who slip into rental arrears, and may consequentially become homeless. Some 1,900 people claimed the payment last year, figures show. Ms Doherty said most people claim the payment for issues such as flood damage, but that the Department can help with rental arrears too.

“When I look at the reasons why people are still presenting into homelessness, it is in the main because they were in rented accommodation, they either got into arrears and couldn’t manage to get themselves out of arrears and presented as homeless or the landlord was selling the house for their own personal reasons.

“Maybe if we interceded a little bit earlier than before they arrive at the local county council offices presenting as homeless, we could manage to keep them within the rented accommodation.”

The Minister has admitted that the Government will not meet targets to cut child poverty by 2020. She said she hopes to set new targets in the coming weeks when she launches a new social inclusion strategy.