Seanad debates

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Commencement Matters

School Meals Programme

1:00 pm

Photo of John WhelanJohn Whelan (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for breaking his busy schedule on budget day and coming into the House to take this matter. There will be lots of headlines today and many different issues will attract the attention of the media, but one scheme that will not is the school meals programme. It is an undervalued and unsung success story in our social protection and education systems. I commend the Government on continuing to resource this scheme and increasing its resources. The Tánaiste, Deputy Joan Burton, strongly favours breakfast clubs in schools. It requires a bit of extra effort on the part of the school, with teachers coming in early on a voluntary basis to monitor and administer the programme, but the bottom line is that in this day and age no child in Ireland should go to school or go through the school day hungry. That is why this scheme is extremely important.

As resources become available and as the budgetary situation improves, as we will see outlined on this budget day, more resources should be put into this scheme, because it is vital. I would like to see an emphasis on the breakfast club. I would also like to see the scheme administered in a transparent and open manner. I know it is important to the Minister of State that we have value for money and an open and transparent tendering processes. There is quite a bit of money involved. We must also ensure that good-quality meals are being served to the children, that they are of a high nutritional value and that it is not just tokenism. It is important to ensure that we get not only value for money but also good nutritional value from the meals we serve. I am looking forward to the Minister of State's reply regarding how the scheme is currently being rolled out and how it can be improved.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Whelan for raising this important matter and for giving me the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Department of Social Protection. The Department administers the school meals programme as a targeted intervention for children at risk of food poverty and educational disadvantage. The programme provides funding towards the provision of food services for disadvantaged children through two schemes. The first is the statutory urban school meals scheme, operated by local authorities and part-financed by the Department of Social Protection. The second is the school meals local project schemes, through which funding is provided directly to participating schools and local and voluntary community groups that run their own school meal projects. The programme provides funding towards the provision of food services to some 1,700 schools and organisations, which benefits more than 217,500 children. In view of the benefits of the programme, and despite pressure on the social protection budget over the last number of years, the Government allocated an additional €2 million for the programme in 2015, providing a total allocation of €39 million. The Government had already increased the funding for the programme by €2 million in budget 2013, which was used to extend the scheme to some 100 additional DEIS and special schools, benefitting more than 9,800 additional children.

The programme is an important component of policies to encourage school attendance and extra educational achievement by children, especially those from the most disadvantaged background. Priority is, therefore, given to schools that are part of the Department of Education and Skills' Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, initiative for disadvantaged schools.The additional €2 million funding provided in 2015 is being used to increase payments to existing DEIS schools with a particular focus on the provision of funding for breakfast clubs, an issue in which the Senator believes strongly and which can provide very positive outcomes for vulnerable children in terms of their school attendance, punctuality and energy levels. There is clear evidence that good nutrition improves the concentration levels of students, and breakfast clubs are particularly effective in this regard. A total of 57 schools and preschools in counties Laois, Offaly and Kildare were approved funding for the 2014-15 academic year at a total cost of €1.3 million. At present, the Department of Social Protection is processing applications for the current school year.

Sitting suspended at 1.11 p.m. and resumed at 4 p.m.