Every child born in Ireland today will, by the time they go to primary school, be entitled to a free hot meal there, Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys has promised.
The benefits of a guaranteed, daily hot meal for every child were “huge” and she was “determined” to achieve it by 2028, she said.
Speaking during a Thursday lunchtime visit to St David’s boys national school in Artane, Dublin, which began providing hot meals to its pupils in September, she confirmed such meals would be available to every Deis primary school from September – bringing the numbers to about 1,000 schools. Her ambition is to bring the remaining 2,100 non-Deis primary schools into the scheme over the next four years.
The scheme, which began in 2019 with just 30 schools, is now operating in almost 500.
“I want to roll it out over the next four years and my big plan is that every child born today, by the time they go to primary school they will be able to avail of a hot meal,” she said.
This would bring the cost of the programme from €62 million this year to a projected €290 million from 2028.
Asked if the Department of Public Expenditure had sanctioned the increase without empirical data proving the cost-benefit of the scheme, she said: “We all have budgetary discussions every year but can I just say this is a priority for me.
“I have managed to bring it from 30 to 500 and now on to 1,000 by the end of the year ... I know I have the support of my Government colleagues in doing so.”
Referencing an evaluation report, commissioned by her Department, of the school meals programme and published on Thursday, she said it “very clearly” stated the hot meals were “a benefit to the children and it helps them with educational attainment. It gives them a nutritious meal.
“Parents feel it’s a good idea and it’s a benefit to the children. Teachers say it makes a huge difference to the classroom and ... the children, they say they loved it. You only have to look at the empty plates upstairs where the children have all eaten their meal and enjoyed it.
“It would do your heart good to see them enjoying that good food in the middle of the day.”
She also announced an increase in the rates paid to catering companies providing the meals into schools, of between 15c and 60c per child per day, depending on the meal type, to be backdated to January 1st.
The breakfast rate is now 75c; cold lunch €1.70; dinner €2.50; and hot school meal €3.20.
Among those enjoying their hot meals on Thursday were 6th class pupils Zack Kiernan (11), Cian O’Rourke (12), Wiktor Sydow (11) and Tadhg Lambgoode (13).
They said the hot meals were “nicer” than the cold sandwiches and rolls they used to get. “It’s just nicer. It’s having a dinner in school,” said Wiktor.
“We get pasta, lasagne, curry, chicken-fillet rolls,” explained Zack. “We didn’t think the meals were healthy enough at the start so we contacted the supplier and we asked them to add more options and add more alternatives like brown rice.
“They came in and let us try some of the new foods. They were really nice and now the dinners are lovely, and more healthy.”
Asked what difference having the hot food makes, Zack explains: “You can get a bit tired when you haven’t had food in the day, so it gives you more energy.”
All like the social aspect of sitting sharing a meal with each other. “Just to chat with your friends and have the dinner. We didn’t really do that before,” said one.
“And for the children who don’t have enough food at home, it’s good. There are some kids who might not have enough.”