Pupils at four Cork primary schools are set to get free meals... is it a good idea?

Free school meals is one way to tackle childhood obesity and reduce health inequality in Cork, writes Helen Cummins, Dietician and Policy Officer with the Institute of Public Health in Ireland
Pupils at four Cork primary schools are set to get free meals... is it a good idea?

A new pilot project will be rolled out to provide a hot meal to children in 36 primary schools this school year.

IT’S that time of year again when the kids go back to school and parents see the return of routine in sight.

This new school term lunchtime is going to be a little different for more than 6,600 children in 36 primary schools.

This includes students in four Cork schools — Scoil Mhuire Agus Eoin, Mayfield; Clogheen Mixed NS, Carrigrohane; SN Bun An Tsabhairne, Crosshaven; and Scoil Na Mbraithre, Mitchelstown.

This is because a new pilot project will be rolled out to provide a hot meal to children. The initiative was recently confirmed by the Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty.

It is targeting primary schools which do not have kitchen facilities to cook hot dinners on site. The meals are being prepared and delivered by a supplier who must follow nutritional standards to make sure that school meals meet the Healthy Eating Guidelines.

Crucially, families will not be asked to pay for the meals.

Currently, one in four children in Ireland are either overweight or obese. Around 12% of our three-year-olds in socially deprived areas are obese; 4% of our three-year-olds in more affluent areas are obese. That’s a real health inequality by the age of three.

So it is welcoming to see the Government rolling out a pilot like this one.

Good, quality school meals can have important benefits for schoolchildren. Free schools meals are an important way of providing children from low-income families with a hot, nutritious meal each day, helping to address food poverty.

Research has also shown that school meals can improve diet, exposing children to a wide variety of healthy food options, and even influencing their diet outside of school. They can also have a positive impact on pupil alertness, behaviour and their ability in the classroom.

In Ireland, the Department of Social Protection’s School Meals Programme provides funding towards food for 1,580 schools and organisations, helping 250,000 children.

This new pilot builds on the experience earlier in the year from a trial project at Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School in Dublin to provide hot meals to children in DEIS schools. DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) is the national programme for addressing the educational needs of children and young people from disadvantaged communities. There are currently 896 DEIS schools in Ireland with 183,000 pupils.

During the trial at Our Lady of Lourdes, a free hot meal was provided to all pupils at lunchtime each day, with menu options ranging from Bolognese, curry and casseroles, with vegetarian and vegan options. School principal Tonya Hanley described the programme as having “the potential to be hugely transformative” for children.

When considering the opportunities and challenges for rolling this programme out nationally, we should also look at Northern Ireland, where school meals have been a regular feature for many years.

According to the most recent Northern Ireland census survey, four of out five children entitled to free schools meals avail of them. This means almost 80,000 children receive a free nutritionally balanced meal every day.

Parents can apply for free school meals if their child is in full-time education and they receive a benefit, or they are earning below a certain level of income. Students can also apply for free school meals if they are in full-time education and are receiving a benefit in their own name.

Schools in the North also operate meals in different ways. Some schools operate a ticket system where children present a ticket to indicate they receive a free meal. Other schools, particularly in the post-primary sector, have given students ‘smart cards’ to pay for their meals.

We should also consider research from a pilot project in England which showed that uptake can be affected by the stigma associated with accepting a free school meal. The report showed that when free school meals were offered to all children from all backgrounds, the stigma appeared to be reduced.

But school meals alone won’t work.

One of the key learning points from Northern Ireland is the importance of a whole-school approach to healthy eating. This means consistent healthy eating messages in school, supportive school policies and regular communication between the school and parents.

Nutritional standards should also apply to all food and drink consumed in school, including food sold in schools through vending machines or onsite shops. Healthy lunchbox policies in schools can also encourage healthy eating practices among pupils.

Providing free school meals is one positive way we can tackle obesity and pave the way for children to live healthier lives for longer.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to benefit most from good quality, nutritional food available in schools. We have to make sure that free school meals schemes reach the most disadvantaged children in Cork and that appropriate measures are in place to encourage uptake of free school meals.

Helen Cummins is Policy Officer at the Institute of Public Health in Ireland (IPH) and a qualified dietitian. IPH provides research, evidence and policy analysis to reduce health inequalities on the island of Ireland so that people can reach their potential to live healthy lives.

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