Dáil debates

Wednesday, 29 June 2022

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

School Meals Programme

9:22 am

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss this issue. The school meals programme is of vital importance to the students that benefit from it. The Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, will be aware that the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, announced a €32 million investment and expansion of DEIS schools this year, which brings another 60,000 students into that support and benefits 310 schools. I welcome that. It is good that the Government recognises that there are students, schools, teachers and parents that need extra support. My concern is that it does not appear that the supply of school meals has been included in the budget for this year to support the 310 extra schools. It may well be the case that when the budget is passed in October those measures will be introduced, but it means that there will be a gap for the new DEIS schools from September up to that point. That is my understanding of the position. I hope measures will be put in place to increase the budget to allow for that.

School meals are provided under the Department of Social Protection's budget, whereas DEIS schools are funded under the Department of Education's budget. I wonder about the wisdom of that. It would probably make more sense to bring those together and have the entire DEIS programme, including school meals, supported by the Department of Education.

The school meals programme is of vital importance to children. Visiting schools over the past two years or so to discuss the environment, climate issues and projects and work the schools are doing, I have met students of all ages. On some of my visits, hot meals have arrived. Apart from the nutritional benefit and the benefit to students in their studies of getting a hot meal during the day, it is also a social occasion for the children. It is great to see. We know what the benefits are when children get nutrition during the school day. It helps them with their education and improves their attention.

Many children go to school hungry and live in poverty and deprivation. The provision of school meals is a very small intervention by the Government to assist those children. I worked out that the budget for the school meals programme probably amounts to about €1 per day per student.

We also have the hot meals programme, which caters for 280 schools and approximately 54,000 students. I want to ensure we put in place a budget that enables the new DEIS schools to avail of the school meals programme from September onwards and that we finalise that in the upcoming budget.

9:32 am

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I take his point completely and will bring it back to the Minister. The school meals programme provides funding towards the provision of food to 1,506 schools and organisations, benefiting 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 commitment of the Government and is a key component of policies to encourage school attendance and extra educational achievement.

The Government has provided €68.1 million for the school meals programme this year. In recent years, entry to the programme has been confined to DEIS schools, in addition to schools identified as having levels of concentrated disadvantage that would benefit from the school meals programme. Prior to the introduction of DEIS in 2005, all schools and organisations that were part of one of a number of the Department of Education and Skills' initiatives for disadvantaged schools, including Breaking the Cycle, Giving Children an Even Break, the disadvantaged area scheme, home school community liaison and the school completion programme, were eligible to participate in the programme.

Budget 2022 provided funding for all DEIS schools currently in the programme. Any provision to extend the programme to schools newly added to the DEIS programme will need to be considered as part of the budgetary process. That is what the Deputy is asking for but I accept that there is a time issue involved. We are absolutely committed to continuing to grow the school meals programme, particularly the hot school meals element, building further on the significant extensions announced in the last few budgets.

As part of budget 2019, funding was provided for a pilot scheme from September 2019, providing hot school meals in primary schools. The pilot involved 37 schools, benefiting 6,744 children for the 2019-20 academic year, and was aimed primarily at schools with no on-site cooking facilities. In budget 2021, we announced that an additional €5.5 million would be allocated to extend the provision of hot school meals to an additional 35,000 primary school children currently receiving the cold lunch option. In budget 2022, we provided for hot school meals to be extended from January 2022 to the 81 additional DEIS schools that submitted an expression of interest but were not selected as part of the extension to 35,000 children in budget 2021. That change came in on 1 January this year. The number of children currently in receipt of hot school meals is 54,236. This represents almost 10% of the total primary school population. There are no secondary school children in receipt of hot school meals as the programme is aimed at primary schools with no on-site cooking facilities. We are actively working on this issue and I assure the Deputy that everything is being done to ensure we can support as many schools as possible. I again thank the Deputy for raising the matter.

We have heard from schools that when the hot school meals programme is available in some schools in a region, it is a disadvantage to schools that do not receive it. There are many provincial areas where there could be a few schools in a large provincial town and some have it but some do not. It is becoming an issue for enrolment.

I acknowledge the great work done by Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United and England soccer player, in this area, even though it is across the water. He went out on a limb to promote this issue last year and ensure children would get the meals at home during the Covid period. He helped raise the profile of this topic, not just in the UK but here in Ireland as well.

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister of State. I am glad to have had the opportunity to raise this matter. I raised it yesterday with the Taoiseach during Questions on Policy and Legislation and I have submitted a number of parliamentary questions on it. While I welcome the expansion of DEIS schools, which is positive, I am concerned that we do not seem to have allocated any funding in the budget for those extra schools that are being brought into the school meals programme.

This is a targeted measure. We have recently been discussing the cost-of-living crisis. The cost of food is going to increase and mortgage interest rates will probably go up as well. It is a challenging time for people's personal finances. We have seen the benefit of the targeted measures the Government has introduced over the last 12 months, both in the previous budget and the emergency measures that were introduced. We have seen how those targeted measures have worked. This is an investment in children and their welfare to improve their education. Getting a meal during the day while at school helps children's attention and helps them concentrate so there are educational benefits as well as nutritional benefits. I am glad the Minister of State will take this back to the Minister. The Taoiseach understood clearly what I said yesterday and I think both the Minister for Social Protection and the Minister for Education have got the message from me as well. I hope we will see progress on this issue.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I appreciate the disappointment and frustration for the new DEIS schools that are keen to access the school meals programme. The level of interest in the programme is a clear sign of the need for its expansion and that is something we are committed to doing. I have had contact from schools that did not make the new DEIS allocations this year. That is the next group in line because there are quite a number of them. Some people felt the decision was arbitrary but there is an appeals system in place and maybe some more schools will be included in due course and be able to avail of the school meals programme.

The hot school meals programme has gone from a pilot with 37 schools in 2019 to 284 schools now covering 54,000 children availing of a hot meal as part of their school day. The significant extensions of the programme over a number of successive budgets outline our commitment to extending the provisions of hot school meals and building on what has been achieved to date. In this regard, the Minister for Social Protection has commissioned an evaluation of the school meals programme to be undertaken in 2022 to inform future policy direction and decisions on the scheme. What the Deputy has spoken about is a more short-term issue with regard to schools getting their meals provision as new entrants into the DEIS programme. This evaluation will assess all aspects of the provision of school meals and will engage with all stakeholders. The evaluation is due for completion in November 2022. I am conscious that will be after the budget. The Deputy is asking about budget measures in the meantime. The provision of the school meals programme will be considered as part of the budgetary process for 2023 and all options for the possible inclusion of schools will be explored. I am not making any commitment but the budget focus this year will be on cost-of-living issues and this is a cost-of-living issue. Historically, we make announcements on budget day but sometimes they do not come into effect until January or later the following year. This issue should be put on the agenda for consideration for earlier implementation.