Pupils in poor areas miss out on free school meals
More than 100 schools serving the most disadvantaged communities cannot avail of a programme to serve food to pupils in need because they lack the necessary facilities and personnel.
One in five children go to school or bed hungry, and the Government is providing almost €40m this year for the School Meals Programme in a bid to help tackle the problem.
Breakfast clubs are a popular option in schools participating in the programme, but other meals may also be provided.
Poor nutrition affects children's behaviour and concentration and the provision of free school meals is intended to ensure that children attending schools are adequately fed.
The School Meals Programme is targeted at children suffering disadvantage, the highest concentration of whom are found in about 850 primary and post-primary schools in the Department of Education's Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) scheme.
But about one in eight DEIS schools is not offering the school meals programme, a conference will be told today.
The Healthy Food for All charity, which organised the conference, is now calling for once-off funding of up to €5,000 for each of the 100 schools to allow them to start up the service.
Healthy Food for All co-ordinator Sinead Keenan said they wanted to ensure that all DEIS schools availed of the free meals, which are funded by the Department of Social Protection. She said while the food was made available free, some schools required funding to make an available space suitable for eating, to purchase kitchen equipment or to pay personnel to serve food if volunteers are not available.
The issue is being highlighted at a Healthy Food for All conference on eradicating food poverty among children and young people in Ireland.
According to figures from 2013, an estimated 600,000 people - about one in eight of the population in Ireland - are now living in food poverty, up from 450,000 in 2010.
Ms Keenan said that schools provided an important platform to tackle food poverty among children and they wanted to ensure that all DEIS schools had the required infrastructure in place to provide a healthy meal to their students.
Norah Gibbons, chairperson the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, pointed to the importance of food provision in schools based on her agency's work with the School Completion Programmes.
"The value of breakfast clubs cannot be underestimated and behaviours and concentration in class improve following breakfast.
"In addition, the presence of parents for school meals adds to the sense of community and fosters good relationships between home and school," she said.
The charity is also seeking a five-year investment of €2.5m to fund Community Food Initiatives so that there is at least one such initiative in every county.
Ms Keenan said that Community Food Initiatives improved the availability and accessibility of healthy food for low income groups at local level through community gardens, cookery/nutrition classes, community cafés, supermarket tours and budgeting courses.
"We know from direct experience that they have a life-changing impact on those who take part in them," she said.