By Cian Molloy - 25 June, 2020
The Society of St Vincent de Paul is calling on the government in the Republic to follow the Northern Irish Executive’s lead and extend free school meals into the summer to ensure that needy children do not go hungry.
SVP NI lobbied the Stormont government to introduce a summer food scheme for those children who normally receive school meals during term time and this week Stormont said ‘Yes’ to the proposal.
Describing the summer food scheme as vital, SVP NI’s interim regional president Patrick Friel said: “We are grateful that the NI Executive listened to us and other campaigners.
“We are working within local communities to assist parents who are experiencing difficulties in affording the cost of basic needs for their families so that no children will go hungry this summer and this boost from the government will be a relief for the parents of the 97,000 children who are eligible for free school meals across the country.”
Meanwhile, south of the border, the society is continuing to lobby the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in a bid to have those who are receiving food parcels in lieu of school meals continue to do so after the 2019-2020 primary school year ends tomorrow.
Some 250,000 children are eligible to receive free school meals in this country, says SVP Head of Social Justice, Dr. Tricia Keilthy.
“Since the COVID-19 lockdown, families of children who had been receiving school meals have been receiving food parcels and it has really highlighted the extent of food poverty in this country,” she said.
During the school term, children at DEIS schools or those who otherwise qualify, receive a free lunch, usually in the form of a sandwich and a piece of fruit, although this year hot meals were provided on a trial basis at some locations. Additionally, DEIS schools can apply for funding to provide children with a breakfast, if it is thought necessary. When the schools were closed because of the new coronavirus outbreak, just before St Patrick’s Day this year, this daily support was replaced with a weekly food parcel provided to families of qualifying children.
When the lockdown started more than three months ago, the SVP lobbied the government to help needy families by providing them with additional top-up payments to help cover the cost of having children at home full-time – the amount suggested by the society was €30 a week for each child over 12 and €15 a week for children younger than that.
“We were unsuccessful in that bid, which made the food parcels in lieu of school meals all the more important,” Dr Keilthy said.
In Britain, Boris Johnson’s government had said it was not going to provide food supports to needy families during the school holidays, but the Conservative government was forced into an embarrassing u-turn on the issue following an intervention by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford.
In an open letter to UK MPs, the 22-year-old forward revealed how he and his siblings relied on school meals when he was a boy. “My mum worked full-time, earning the minimum wage, to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table, but it was not enough,” he wrote.
Thanks to the intervention, up to 1.3 million British children will now qualify for food vouchers during the summer worth UK£15 per child. With the Northern Ireland Executive taking similar action it remains to be seen if the Irish government will follow suit.