Wednesday, 19 May 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
School Meals Programme
There is a grave injustice being done to the 149 pupils who attend Knockmore Junior School in Killinarden and a similar injustice being done to 91 other schools and the children who go there. These are schools that applied for the hot school meal programme because they need it and they lost out on the basis of a lottery. It is completely unfair.
There is plenty of academic evidence, not that we really need it, to show the importance of good nutrition and the difference that it makes in the education children get, how attentive they are in class and how healthy they are.
These 149 students, as it stands, will lose out when many of their brothers and sisters who are slightly older and going to other primary schools in the area would be able to access it. Faith told Kitty Holland from The Irish Times:
I have a big sister and she will be getting hot lunches. It's just not fair.
It is also not fair on the parents in those situations. I am seeking a commitment from the Minister of State today that Knockmore Junior School will be given access to hot school lunches.
I would also make the broader point that this is not just about Knockmore Junior School but about the 91 other unsuccessful schools, all of the DEIS schools and potentially, all of the schools in the country. Why on earth should some children not get what they need because of a lottery? We are not talking about a lot of money in the greater scheme of things. It costs €370 per child who accesses this scheme. Does the Minister of State agree that the scheme should be rolled out initially to all DEIS schools and then expanded out from there?
I have a question about Mary Queen of Angels Schools 1 and 2 in Ballyfermot which share the same campus. Both applied for the hot meals scheme. One school was successful but the other was not. The fear of the boards of management and the principals is that there will be a preference among parents to enrol their children in the school that provides the hot meals and the other school will be left behind.
I concur with the points made by Deputy Murphy about the inequality of the system and the unfairness of running hot meals on a lottery rather than on where they are needed. That must be questioned in the wider scheme of things in terms of the need for this programme. The Minister for Social Protection, in her response to my parliamentary questions, acknowledges that this is a good thing. As has been said, proper nutrition, particularly for younger children, is hugely important. There is a problem with obesity in children throughout the country but particularly in areas of low income and disadvantage. Rolling out a proper hot meals school programme is not radical but is really just catching up with where the rest of Europe has been for many decades. Hot meals are given out in schools in Britain and there is no question of a lottery. In fact, there is not a question of it not happening and the same is true in France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Finland, Lithuania, Slovakia and Cyprus, to name but a few. This has been normal practice in Europe where if one works in a large factory, one expects to have a decent canteen and when one goes to school, one also expects to have a decent canteen providing hot meals. Telling us that providing cold meals is good enough is unacceptable. I was getting sandwiches and milk in school when I was a kid and that is a long time ago. We need to move on and provide hot meals to all children.
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. The school meals programme provides funding towards the provision of food to some 1,506 schools and organisations benefitting 230,000 children. The objective of the programme is to provide regular, nutritious food to children to enable them 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 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 in 2020. The pilot involves 37 schools benefitting 6,744 students for the 2019-20 academic year and was aimed primarily at schools with no on-site cooking facilities. The extension of the hot school meals programme was a priority for the Minister and myself and as part of budget 2021 we announced that an additional €5.5 million would be provided to extend the provision of hot school meals to an additional 35,000 primary school children who were, at the time, in receipt of the cold lunch option. That represents a sixfold increase in the number of pupils receiving hot school meals.
The 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 number. A minimum of one school for each local authority area was selected. As a result of this process, 189 of the 281 schools that submitted an expression of interest were selected.
The Minister and I are absolutely committed to continuing to grow the hot school meals element and building further on the significant extension announced as part of the recent budget. I have spoken to the Minister and know she is actively working to find a solution so that it is possible to include those schools that were unsuccessful in a hot school meals programme this year. The Minister and I are absolutely committed to the school meals programme.
It is important to mention that over the course of the pandemic, the Minister has continued to support schools and children with the continued availability of school meals. In addition to the provision of meals during the school term, the Minister also extended the funding so that meals could be provided during the summer period last year, as well as during Christmas, Easter and other periods of school closure. I assure Deputies that everything is being done to ensure that we can support as many schools as possible.
Again, I thank Deputies for raising this important matter. I have a particular interest in this issue as I oversee the roadmap for social inclusion. We recently decided to establish a working group on food poverty. That working group will be meeting soon and hot school meals will certainly be on its agenda. On the question of the lottery, demand outstripped the budget allocation for the programme. Unfortunately, the best way that we could find for allocating limited resources was a lottery system which I accept is inadequate. We need to meet the demand that exists for the programme.
To start with the point about the lottery system, it is good that the Minister of State recognises that it is inadequate. Frankly, it is sick that in 2021 pupils are relying on a lottery to determine whether they get a hot meal in school. Either the programme is necessary, which the evidence suggests is clearly the case, or it is not but it is not acceptable in this day and age that students would be relying on winning a lottery.
A lot of the Minister of State's answer is the same as the answer that has been given for the last couple of months. The new element is the fact that the Minister is working to see if it will be possible to include the schools that were unsuccessful in the hot school meals programme this year. I hope that is translated into a solution for Knockmore Junior School and the other schools that missed out. If it is not, I have no doubt that the principal, pupils and the parents, who have done a great job of speaking out and campaigning, will continue their campaign until the hot school meal programme is provided.
I accept the Minister of State's bona fides in terms of this being an important issue about which he feels passionate. The more improvements we can make to the programme, the better. The anomalies must be addressed, however, particularly the situation where one campus is shared by two schools in Ballyfermot, Mary Queen of Angels, and one school gets the hot meals while the other does not. That creates tensions, divisions and problems, particularly as some members of the same family are getting fed in school while others are not.
In reply to my parliamentary question, the Minister says that the objective of the programme is to provide regular, nutritious food to children who are unable, due to the lack of good quality food, to take full advantage of the education provided to them. I would argue that the provision of nutritious, regular and good quality food to children should not just apply to those who are unable to be fed at home. It should be standard practice to provide for everybody and if that was the case, then the question of a lottery and of inequality in the delivery of such provision would not arise. As I said earlier, we would just be catching up with the rest of Europe.
I appreciate the disappointment and frustration for the 92 schools that submitted an expression of interest in accessing the hot school meals programme and were not selected, including the schools referred to by Deputies Murphy and Smith. The level of demand for the programme is a clear sign of the need for its expansion and that is something to which the Minister and I are committed. Since the start of the pandemic we have worked with our colleagues in the Government to ensure that funding continued to be provided for the school meals programme, including when schools were closed over the holiday periods. We remain committed to extending the provision of hot school meals and building on what has been achieved to date. As I already said, the Minister is actively exploring options for the possible inclusion of unsuccessful schools in the hot school meals programme.
Specifically on the Mary Queen of the Angels schools, the two schools have separate roll numbers so the Department identified them as separate entities. This partially explains why one was chosen and the other was not.
I go back to the fact that the programme was piloted in 2019 and it worked well. It was difficult to read the demand because of Covid but it was clear the demand was there. It was increased fivefold and we are committed to expanding the programme so we do not have these situations where there are schools that clearly want it and need it but cannot access it. We want to rectify that.