Executive will fund free school meals throughout summer
THE Executive has bowed to pressure to extend free school meals into the summer holidays, with Northern Ireland the only region of the UK to stop feeding children at the end of the school year after a Downing Street u-turn.
After sparking outage by dismissing the campaign by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, the British government yesterday announced children in England will receive six-week vouchers through a £120 million Covid Summer Food Fund.
The Scottish and Welsh administrations already support children on free school meals with food vouchers, meal deliveries or bank transfers until children go back to school.
The families of almost 97,000 children have been receiving payments of £27 every fortnight per child during the Covid-19 enforced school closures, but last month, Education Minister Peter Weir said the department could not afford to continue payments in the summer.
Chris Lyttle chair of Stormont's Education Committee had urged the Executive to make the payments which he described as "a lifeline for many families", reminding them "the right to food is protected under international law".
SDLP South Belfast MP Claire Hanna has written to ministers for education and communities Mr Weir and Carál Ní Chuilín urging them to act to prevent holiday hunger.
She warned food banks would "not be able to meet this demand".
"Shamefully, children across Northern Ireland go hungry every year, but in the context of job losses and reduced incomes, families will be under greater pressure this year."
The UUP tabled a motion calling for Executive support to combat "holiday hunger", with Strangford MP Mike Nesbitt saying "there is no logic in providing meals during term-time only".
"If a child needs state intervention in May and June, they will need it in July and August."
Green Party councillor and teacher Simon Lee said from his work volunteering during the pandemic "it's clear that many families are struggling from sudden changes in circumstances".
"Covid-19 didn't give rise to holiday hunger but job losses and income drops have exacerbated already difficult situations."
"As a devolved administration, the NI Executive can and should act in the best interests of our young people and their families on the issue of holiday hunger."
First Minister Arlene Foster said she will propose to the Executive that the scheme be extended over the summer.
"I am very sympathetic to ensuring that our young people have the certainty of at least one good meal per day over the summer months," she said.
"And we know that that is a challenge for many families. And I know this is an issue the deputy first minister (Michelle O'Neill) also takes very seriously and indeed having spoken to the education minister he is also very supportive."
She said young people must "have the best possible opportunity to succeed to when they return to school hopefully in late August/September".
"There are exceptional circumstance due to Covid-19 therefore I will be proposing to the Executive that meals continue to be provided to that cohort of children over the summer period this year, if the necessary finances can be secured."
Finance Minister Conor Murphy said the money will be found.
"I'm determined to identify the money necessary for this. Hope to bring proposals to Executive in near future."
Later Mr Weir tweeted that he "wholeheartedly support (party leader Mrs Foster) in her proposal on Free School Meals over this summer period. I will therefore be making a bid for additional funding to the NI Executive".