Thursday, 29 April 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
School Meals Programme
The second matter has been tabled by Deputies Joan Collins and Costello, who wish to discuss joint applications for the hot meals scheme. The Minister of State at the Department of Rural and Community Development, Deputy Joe O'Brien, is dealing with it.Is Deputy Joan Collins present?
Deputy Joan Collins could not make it, unfortunately, so it is just me. I am happy to speak on the Deputy's behalf. She and I both want to highlight concerns that were raised with us by the board of management of Mary Queen of Angels 2 boys' national school. It is a local issue but it has the potential to be a much wider one that would be very beneficial to address. Mary Queen of Angels 2 applied for the hot meals scheme. An interesting anomaly is that Mary Queen of Angels 1 boys' national school, which shares the site, was selected for the scheme but Mary Queen of Angels 2 was not. Essentially there are two schools on the same site serving the same community but it is as if only half a school is being allowed to avail of the scheme. I appreciate that there was oversubscription. It is a very popular and worthy scheme. Funding was allowed for only 179 schools but close to 300 applied. Mary Queen of Angels schools 1 and 2 are essentially one school on the same site. I can think of plenty of other cases in my constituency where a boys' national school and a girls' national school are on the same site, or where junior and senior national schools are co-located. It makes sense to treat these pairs of schools as one, thereby maximising the economies of scale that can be achieved as a consequence. The biggest advantage of treating the two schools as one is that more students who need a hot meal will get one in school.
The scheme provides an incredibly important service. A warm meal is provided that supports children nutritionally and enhances their ability to engage in school and education. It provides social and educational support. It is an incredibly important programme and should be rolled out nationally to all schools as quickly as possible. There is an anomaly whereby there are two schools on the same site that could be treated as one and that could both benefit from the scheme. The communities attached to each school could benefit so I ask the Minister of State to review the hot meals scheme as it stands, ascertain how many applicant schools are co-located and address this matter so that as many pupils as possible from the community in Ballyfermot and other communities can benefit from it.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. The school meals programme provides funding towards the provision of food to some 1,557 schools and organisations, benefiting 227,000 children. The objective of the programme is to provide regular, nutritious food to children who are unable, due to lack of food of good quality, to take full advantage of the education provided to them. The programme is an important component of policies to encourage school attendance and extra educational achievement. The Government has provided €65.1 million for the school meals programme this year.
As part of budget 2019, funding was provided for a pilot scheme from September 2019, providing hot school meals in primary schools at a cost of €1 million for 2019 and €2.5 million for 2020. The pilot involved 37 schools, benefiting 6,744 students for the 2019-2020 academic year, and was aimed primarily at schools with no on-site cooking facilities. The funds for the initial pilot programme were made available in budget 2019 and the pilot was carried on into 2020. Given that a proportion of the pilot took place during the first lockdown of the pandemic, we were not in a position to escalate the scheme as quickly as we would have liked. During the pandemic school closures, my Department continued to provide meal assistance to schools.
In budget 2021, the Government announced that an additional €5.5 million would be provided to extend the provision of hot school meals to an additional 35,000 primary schoolchildren, who were at the time in receipt of the cold lunch option. My Department issued invitations for expressions of interest to 705 primary schools in November 2020 and a total of 281 expressions of interest were received, in respect of 52,000 children. The 35,000 places were allocated to each local authority area based on the number of children applied for by local authority area as a percentage of the total. A minimum of one school in each local authority area was selected. Thereafter, a process of random selection was used for each area. As a result of this process, 189 of the 281 schools that submitted an expression of interest were selected.
Both schools referred to by the Deputy submitted an expression of interest for the hot school meals scheme. Despite being located on the same site, the schools have separate roll numbers and are two separate entities. Unfortunately, one of the schools was not selected and I appreciate this was very disappointing for school 2. The school received €42,000 for the current 2020-21 school year to provide a cold lunch and snack club for pupils attending.
The Department has contacted all schools selected for the hot school meals scheme to confirm their involvement in the scheme. Following this process, in the event that some places on the scheme become available, consideration will be given to how best we can use any excess spaces to accommodate those who wish to avail of the scheme. Any further extension of the provision of hot meals will need to be considered in the upcoming budgetary context.
As the Ceann Comhairle pointed out, one school is being funded for hot meals and the other is being funded for cold meals, and they are located right beside each other. I appreciate there are resource limits and it is a pilot scheme but it seems we are missing a trick here in being able to provide cheaply and easily an extension by simply treating the two schools on one site as one unit. I have no doubt there are many other schools, both in and outside the scheme, that could also benefit from this. Treating them as one unit would allow an expansion of the scheme with very few additional resources and facilities.
As the Minister of State said, this is a very important meal scheme for enabling people to engage in education, which is very important for enabling them to reach their full potential. This is why Deputy Collins and I raised the issue. We want the children of Mary Queen of Angels 2 to be able to reach their potential as much as the children of Mary Queen of Angels 1.
I have no doubt there are many other co-located schools. Extending provision to these schools seems to be a quick, easy and relatively cheap way to expand the scheme. I appreciate that, as the Minister of State indicated, budgetary constraints would need to be taken into account but surely expanding the scheme to co-located schools is the quickest and cheapest way to extend this very worthy scheme to needy communities.
I appreciate the disappointment and frustration for all 92 schools that submitted an expression of interest to access hot school meals and were not selected, including the school in question. The level of demand for the programme is a clear sign of the need for its expansion. I will raise the matter with the Minister.
Officials from the Department have contacted all schools selected and are in the process of considering responses. If schools that have been selected decide not to proceed, we can reallocate the places. Further consideration will be given to the use of any excess capacity once we have confirmed the position with the selected schools. Any further extension of the provision of hot meals will need to be considered in this year's budget process.
As Minister of State with responsibility for the implementation of the roadmap for social inclusion, I recently announced the establishment of a working group on food poverty. It is my intention that this working group will bring together key stakeholders from various Departments and State agencies, as well as the NGO sector, to share information and assess the myriad different schemes and programmes currently under way that have a connection to the wider issues of food poverty, including the school meals programme. It is my intention to have the group meet with a view to identifying the key drivers of food poverty to maximise interventions that adequately address the underlying issues.