‘No decision’ on continuing free school meals during holidays after 100,000 NI children aided during summer

More than 100,000 children in Northern Ireland benefited from an extension of free school meals over the summer.

owever, the Department of Education said “no decision” had yet been taken on whether to extend the scheme for all school holidays in Northern Ireland.

The Summer Food Payment Scheme ran between July 1 and August 31.

Education Minister Peter Weir said 100,570 children received assistance costing £11,942,445.

This includes 88 children of asylum seekers who were provided with support, at a cost of around £10,400.

Mr Weir added that the remainder of the £12m funding has yet to be returned to the Executive.

He was responding to an Assembly question from SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan.

A department spokesperson explained that during the summer period all families received a grant equivalent to the cost of a free school meal (£2.70) for five days per week.

“Catering services in schools are now fully up and running and nutritious free school meals are being provided to children as normal,” the spokesperson said.

“We are aware of the call to extend the holiday provision in other jurisdictions, however no decisions have been taken in Northern Ireland as yet.”

The scheme was introduced after a successful campaign from the Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford, which forced the UK Government into a U-turn to extend free meals for the summer months, with the Stormont Executive soon following.

The 22-year-old striker has formed a task force along with some of the UK’s biggest supermarkets and food brands designed to address the issue.

Campaigners in England are now calling for the scheme to continue for all holidays, with concerns children will be left hungry over the next half term and Christmas holidays as Covid-19 rates increase and further job losses are predicted.

Ulster Unionist education spokesperson Robbie Butler said the issue of child hunger could no longer be ignored.

“There is an issue with child food poverty and children getting a hot meal in and out of school, not just during Covid-19,” he said.

Asked if he would support extending the scheme permanently, he added: “I can see the value in it now, even though the cost of it does have to be properly considered.

“There is analysis that shows that educational underachievement is usually in low income areas so this is a part of that conversation.”

Mr Butler praised the campaign led by Marcus Rashford for helping to destigmatise free school meals.

“Certainly for a period in education I got free school meals so I understand that,” he said.

“Providing hot meals outside of schools of course has to be an optional thing, as some parents are financially secure.

“But the reality is that in 2020, regardless of whether they’re in school or not there should not be a child in this country who goes hungry any day.”

Commenting on the national campaign Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, told the i newspaper: “After the efforts by unions, charities and professional footballers to ensure there was provision over Easter, half term and summer, it should not be necessary to make this demand a fourth and fifth time as we head towards another half-term and the Christmas break.”

“That is why we support calls for a definitive decision for all holidays, that will assure parents that proper planning and strategy are in place for provision throughout the year.”

Daisy Cooper, the new Liberal Democrat education spokesperson added: “We’re potentially in an even worse situation this autumn than we were six months ago, there’s lots of people who may have lost their jobs already or may lose their jobs in the coming months.

“There will be more families being plunged into poverty and we need to make sure they have the security and peace of mind knowing that their children at the very least will be fed.”

Belfast Telegraph

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