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CAROL NOLAN: Hungry school children? Not if I have anything to say

As a former Gaelscoil Principal, I am very aware of the challenges that families are confronted with as they try to meet rising educational costs while maintaining a good standard of healthy living for their children.

This is a situation that is almost certainly going to get much more difficult in the coming months and years as we face into the damage caused by the Covid-19 economic lockdown.

For those children in communities at risk of disadvantage and social exclusion-the problems will go much further-extending even to difficulties accessing basic nutrition and a hot meal during the school week.

It is an area that we will need to work hard to protect and improve.
To be fair, the government has made some progress in terms of rolling out and expanding the School Meals Programme that is already in place.

We know from information provided by outgoing Minister Regina Doherty, that funding towards the provision of food to some 1,580 schools and organisations benefited 250,000 children in 2019, at a total cost of €54 million.

The objective of this scheme is to provide regular, nutritious food to children who are unable, due to lack of good quality food, to take full advantage of the education provided to them.

Unfortunately-the provision of this service to vulnerable children has been massively disrupted by the Covid-19 emergency.

This does not mean that brilliant and heroic efforts are not being made by individual schools, charitable organisations, the GAA and many others.

In fact we know that following the Taoiseach’s announcement on 27 March 2020, schools were advised that where school meals provision is considered an “essential service” and staff,  (including support staff, teachers, principals or Home School Community Liaison or School Completion Programme staff), travelling to assist are included in those considered to be travelling for work purposes.

Volunteers assisting with the School Meals Programme are also covered.

But what happens if there is disruption to even this level of service?  What happens to those children who would then have to go without a breakfast or basic nutrition?

Clearly if physical and social distancing measures are extended-and if the number of cases testing positive rises-this could cause real difficulty. In such an eventuality-we would need to look at some other model for ensuring that the families of these children are assisted in a very specific way.

One very interesting alternative option is now in place in the United States.

There the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, announced that the first state (Michigan), has been approved to operate the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT).

This is a new program authorized by the Families First Coronavirus Act (FFCRA), which helps families of children who were eligible for free or reduced-price meals dealing with school closures.

As I understand it- the EBT is a supplemental food purchasing benefit paid directly to eligible households to offset the cost of meals that would have otherwise been consumed at school. There is no doubt that this initiative will a welcome relief for nearly 750,000 Michigan children who are eligible for free-and reduced-priced lunches.

In principle, it is somewhat like our own system of Children’s Allowance-a payment made directly for the benefit of children.

If we chose not to go down the U.S. route, we could explore the pro and cons of topping up the Children’s Allowance to those families with children who currently are availing of the school meal programme.

In that situation we could prioritise the approximately 180,000+ pupils in the 896 DEIS Schools (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) which cater for children in areas of significant disadvantage.

However we respond to this crisis, we must be imaginative and we must work hard to ensure that children who are in real and genuine need of either a breakfast, lunch or hot meal can continue to access this service.

It should also be noted that at a time when the government is talking about injecting billions into the economy; expanding the Schools Meal programme is not excessively expensive.

Again, from information provided by Minister Regina Doherty, we know that as part of Budget 2019, a pilot scheme was commenced from September 2019, which provided hot school meals in 36 primary schools for an estimated 7,200 children at a cost of €1m for 2019 and €2.5m in 2020.

As part of Budget 2020, an additional €4 million in funding was approved to extend the hot school meals scheme in 2020 for children currently receiving the cold lunch option.

The additional cost of providing a hot school meal to 35,000 children, who currently receive a cold lunch is a mere €9.5 million for a full school year. The cost of providing a hot school meal to 35,000 children, who do not currently receive a cold lunch would be €18.3 million.

In the grand scheme of things this is a small price to pay to keep our children fed and receptive to education.I can only hope these gains will not be lost in the storm of what lies ahead.

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