The Northern Ireland Executive has agreed to extend the free school meals scheme over the school summer holidays at a cost of £12 million.
News that the Northern Ireland Executive was to consider extending the free school meals scheme over the summer months came just days after the UK Government were forced into an embarrassing U-turn to extend the scheme in England.
The Conservative Government had originally stated that it would not award vouchers in England outside of term-time but signalled a change in their decision just hours before an opposition day debate in the House of Commons.
In the days following, Education Minister Peter Weir revealed that the Executive had agreed to a summer food scheme in Northern Ireland for July and August. Wales and Scotland had already signalled their intent to do so.
The summer food scheme is separate from, but similar to, the Free School Meals direct payment scheme which operated between 23 March and 30 June.
However, a disagreement in the Executive Office threatened the availability of finances for the extension. Ministers did not initially agree to sign-off a broader funding package, made available from in-year surpluses from various departments, which included the £12 million for free school meals as an agreement could not be reached on funding a victims’ pension scheme.
The prospect of the scheme not getting the finances necessary has given renewed vigour to calls for a focus on renewing Northern Ireland’s Child Poverty Strategy, published in 2016. It has also injected emphasis on a pledge within the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which saw the resumption of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, to “develop and implement an Anti-poverty Strategy”, which would support a new Programme for Government.
Just under 97,000 children in Northern Ireland are entitled to free school meals and the summer food scheme will mean that families of those eligible will receive £2.70 per child per day.
Announcing the funding, Education Minister Peter Weir said that the issues of “holiday hunger” had been a real concern.
“These payments will help ensure that those children most in need do not go hungry during the summer months.”
He also announced that the Education Authority’s Eat Well Live Well programme will also be extended for July and August. The scheme provides lunches and breakfasts to more than 3,000 vulnerable young people.