There may be “logistical complications” to rolling out the State’s hot school meals programme to children during the holiday period, the Taoiseach said.
Leo Varadkar said the Government would examine the proposal, but that other extensions of the scheme would be prioritised.
It comes in response to Barnardos’ call for the Hot School Meals Programme to be extended to secondary schools, and for a pilot to be held to offer it during holiday periods.
The Hot School Meals Programme began in 2019 as a small pilot servicing 30 schools, and now offers hot meals to more than 90,000 children in almost 500 primary schools.
The rollout of hot meals to remaining primary schools classed as DEIS schools will be completed in September, the Government has said.
Mr Varadkar said on Wednesday that Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys is leading the programme’s expansion to provide hot meals in every DEIS primary school and every special school by September.
“Minister Humphreys has also written out to schools that are non-DEIS to see if they’d be interested in participating in this programme as well,” he told the Dáil.
He said he had seen the scheme in action last week in a school in Co Tipperary and said it was “great to see it working – individualised hot school meals for kids with their names on it”.
But he added: “I think providing that in the summer period, during the holidays, would involve logistical complications.
“We will examine it, but the priority is DEIS schools and special schools first, then other schools that are interested second, and then we could look at the possibility of extending into the holiday period.”
Mr Varadkar said that another proposal by Barnardos, to start a free school book scheme for all primary schools, was piloted by Fine Gael TD Joe McHugh when he was minister for education, and will now be made “a reality” by Minister for Education Norma Foley.
Responding to the report from Barnardos, which highlighted how parents were struggling amid inflation, Minister for Finance Michael McGrath said that “a lot” had been done to help families but the Government “will go further”.
“We’ve already announced certain measures that have yet to take effect. So we’ll have the additional child benefit payment of €100 per child which will be paid in June, the additional increase the back to school clothing footwear allowance will be paid as well.
“We will have the free school books, which will be very welcome for thousands of families all over Ireland, we’ve reduced the school transport charges and of course, we have now extended the hot meal programme to all DEIS primary schools so that tens of thousands of children will get a hot meal in school, which I think is one of the most important things that any government can help families and help schools with.”
He said the findings of the Barnardos survey underlined his point that the Government will need to make choices – though he said tackling child poverty was a priority for the Government.
“The starting point is to decide on how much money we have, how much money is appropriate to spend, and then decide on the different priorities, which will involve reducing income tax, will involve increasing welfare, but tackling child poverty is a top priority for this government, and I think you will find that that will continue to be reflected in decisions that we’ve made.”