Publication - Urban & District School Meals Meals Schemes

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Executive Summary

Background to the Scheme
Operation of the Scheme
Rational for and Continued Relevance of the Scheme
Efficiency and Effectiveness of the Scheme
Proposals for Reform
Responsibility and Administration


TThe School Meals Scheme ( SMS or "the Scheme") provides "meals" to some 60,000 pupils in almost 400 schools at a total overall cost of approximately "2.47m (£1.95m) per annum. As part of its Expenditure Review Programme, the Department of Social and Family Affairs ( D/S&FA), which has responsibility in legislation for the SMS, established a Working Group ( WG) to review the Scheme from first principles. Details of the WG membership, Terms of Reference and methodology are set out in Chapter 1. This report presents the outcome of that review.

Background to the Scheme

The SMS has two distinct elements, the Urban and the Gaeltacht Schemes. The Urban Scheme was introduced in 1914 as a two-year discretionary measure in response to the Great Strike or Lockout of 1913. The time limit was later removed. The objective of the Scheme was to assist children who, because they had insufficient food to eat at home, were unable to take full advantage of the education provided for them. The Gaeltacht Scheme was introduced in 1930 and covered specific Gaeltacht areas in the counties of Cork, Donegal, Galway, Kerry and Mayo. It has been gradually discontinued and last operated in 1991.
The Local Authorities (LAs) undertake day to day administration of the Scheme. The D/S&FA legislation enables LAs other than County Councils to operate the Scheme. Eligible LAs are not compelled to operate the Scheme. Each year some 34 LAs out of 85 eligible LAs operate the Scheme. There have been relatively few changes to the Scheme since it was first introduced.

Operation of The Scheme

Funding of the food costs is split 50/50 between the D/S&FA and the LAs. The LAs meet their own and the schools administration costs. Of the "2.47m (£1.95m) spent annually D/S&FA covers "1.09m (£0.86m) food costs and the LAs cover of "1.38m ("1.09m(£0.86m) food + "0.29 (£0.23m) administration).
There are no consistent eligibility criteria. Eligibility is primarily a matter for the LA and in general the D/S&FA approves all applications submitted by the LAs, once the school is approved by the Department of Education and Science (D/Ed&Sc).
While there is little change year on year, in terms of participation rates, service offered, etc., there is considerable difference between coverage provided in different LA areas. In addition to the SMS, schools could also avail of the EU School Milk Scheme in order to benefit from access to milk and milk products at subsidised prices. Not all LAs or schools are aware of or avail of this scheme.

Rational for and Continued Relevance of the Scheme

The objective of the Scheme set down in legislation is to assist children who are "unable by reason of lack of food to take full advantage of the education provided for them".
The Group examined the issues of whether lack of food impacted on ability to learn and whether there were children attending school with inadequate food. Considerable numbers of reports, research papers etc. were examined. The evidence set out in the reports and the relevant expert opinion supports the view that nutritional intake and cognitive ability are inextricably linked and therefore that inadequate food impacts negatively on one’s ability to learn and benefit from the educational system. For example a recent US study states that:
"Recent research provides compelling evidence that undernutrition – even in its "milder" forms – during any period of childhood can have detrimental effects on the cognitive development of children and their later productivity as adults. In ways not previously known, under-nutrition impacts on the behaviour of children, their school performance and their overall cognitive development."
The Group did not consider it possible to determine the actual number of children who attend for school with no or inadequate food. However, indications from research shows that low income families spend less on food than high-income families and that food choice is dictated by factors such as cost, ease of preparation, transportation and storage rather than nutritional value. The Group also considered the fact that the SMS has continued to the present day and the emergence of innovative meals projects, generally operating on a voluntary basis, was itself indicative of need. Anecdotal evidence from teachers and principals also suggests that there are children arriving in school without having had a breakfast and/or with no lunch. The Group also considered that the level of child poverty and the numbers of children in receipt of State support with education expenses also indicated a degree of need.
The Group examined relevant Departmental Strategy Statements and other statements of public policy and concluded that the objective of the Scheme remains valid and is compatible with these

: Efficiency and Effectiveness of the Scheme

While the Scheme does deliver some benefits to the children who avail of it, the considerable benefits from both a nutritional and educational perspective that can be achieved through school meals provision are not achieved by the SMS.
The Scheme was generally considered to be inefficient in view of the number of agencies involved in its operation and the high cost of administration relative to the low value of the food provided. In 2001, it cost " 4.91 (£3.86) to deliver "44 (£35) worth of food to each participating child. Lack of awareness and take-up of EU School Milk Scheme and the potential for "wasted" meals were considered to be further inefficiencies of the Scheme.
The Group identified a target range of between 36,092 to 214,000 children who could be considered to be in need of support under the Scheme and noted that the Scheme only benefits some 60,000 children. This, coupled with the fact that some of the children in the target group are excluded by legislation and that others who could participate are prevented from doing so by virtue of the fact that either their school or the LA will not operate the Scheme, led the Group to conclude that the Scheme was ineffective in meeting its objective. The exclusion of post primary school children, while not part of the original objective of the Scheme, was also seen as a further weakness of the SMS.
The Group identified a number of educational benefits from school meal provision and concluded that the Scheme could be considered to "assist" children in taking advantage of the education provided. The Group considered that the degree of assistance was likely to be relatively small, and especially so when compared to what experts believe can be achieved.
The lack of a specific nutritional goal is a further weakness. The international standard of for contribution of lunch to Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is 33%. However, the Group found that the basic meal offered by Dublin City Council , the biggest and most comprehensive operator of the Scheme with reasonably representative meal types), would not meet the standard.
While the Group considered that there was a compelling case for the need for and the benefits of this type of intervention, they concluded that the current Scheme did not provide an efficient or effective policy response to the need identified. Accordingly, the Group recommends that the current Scheme should be discontinued and that an efficient and effective alternative be put in place.

Proposals for Reform

Objective and Name

The name proposed for the reformed scheme is the School Food Programme ( SFP).
The short-term objective is to ensure the provision of appropriate school meals to school-going children whose educational opportunities or nutritional or health status are impaired by reason of lack of food The long-term objective is to ensure that school-going children have access to appropriate meals in a manner that positively impacts on their educational opportunities and their overall health.
In essence the Group want to ensure that in the first instance resources are prioritised and targeted at those most in need of support i.e. children who would be considered to be in need of free meals. The WG considered that when this had been achieved the possibility of meals being made available, if required, on a paid basis to children not in need of free meals both in schools providing free meals and in other schools should be considered.
Chapter 6 details the principles which guided the Working Group in formulating its proposals on alternative policy and organisational approaches for the delivery of supports to meet the cost of back to school clothing and footwear. It also considers the current policy context, the improvements in the area of Child Support in particular since 1997 and outlines the alternative delivery options considered by the Group and its final recommendations.

Criteria for Eligibility
The Group considered how best to identify children in need of free meals and agreed that eligibility for free meals should be linked to an existing designation. The Group agreed that the SFP should be targeted at post primary schools with students most at risk of early school leaving and their feeder primary schools, in keeping with the D/Ed&Sc approach and the NAPS. Approximately 10% of schools and 15% (120,000) of pupils will benefit from the SFP. The majority of the Group also considered it appropriate to give entitlement to similarly disadvantaged children in other schools and agreed that the Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance (BSCFA) represented a suitable passporting option. It is expected that this measure would bring in a further 87,000 children. The majority of the Group also considered that individual children should be admitted to the SFP on a case by case basis where a need is identified by school or health board personnel.

Service Provided
The WG agreed that different schools and children would have different needs and that a range of meal options should therefore be offered. These would include breakfasts, hot and cold lunches/dinners and snacks. The Group agreed that these meals should provide a child with 25%, 33% and 10-15% respectively of their key recommended daily nutrient requirements. The Group also considered that the meals should aim to address any known increased nutritional needs for particular groups of children and that the meals should comply with the Nutritional Guidelines for School Food in Ireland.

Responsibility and Administration

The WG considers that a dedicated Unit is required to lead the SFP. It proposes that a multi-agency Unit under the oversight of a National Committee be established. The role of the Unit would be to lead implementation, monitor impact and evaluate the SFP and the Group considered that a staff of 6 people plus 1 co-ordinator for approximately every 40 schools would be required.
The WG agreed that the objectives for the SFP contain health, educational and welfare dimensions. The WG considered the position of the D/E&LG and the LAs and agreed that their continued involvement in school meals would not be warranted. This is on the basis that neither has primary responsibility for the issues being addressed by the SFP, the current administrative functions undertaken by the LAs could be undertaken by another organisation and the number of schools per LA would be quite small. Accordingly, the National Committee should be composed of representatives from D/S&FA, D/Ed&Sc and the Department of Health and Children (D/H&C).
The WG propose that D/S&FA take lead responsibility for the SFP. D/S&FA would chair the Committee, have overall accounting responsibility and have operational responsibility for the Unit. D/Ed&Sc’s primary role would relate to identification of schools for inclusion in the SFP, to linking the SFP into the curriculum and dealing with any relevant school based issues that are beyond the remit of the Unit. D/H&C and its relevant agencies would have responsibility for nutrition criteria for meals, food safety and environmental health standards. Community Dieticians and Health Promoting Teams would also have a role in supporting the SFP.
The WG were aware of the valuable support offered by local businesses to schools in operating their meals projects. The Group agreed that the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility ( CSR) in the context of school meals should be encouraged further.

The lack of facilities in schools was identified as one of the biggest practical difficulties to be overcome. The Group agreed that few communities or schools would either need or be in a position to operate full catering and dining facilities. Accordingly, the supply of meals under contract is considered to be the most practical approach to delivering the service. The Group witnessed a high level of personal commitment from teachers and other school personnel, parents, businesses, children and the local community generally to the existing meals projects. This is considered to have been one of the key factors leading to the continued success of these projects and the Group was anxious that the value of this level of local involvement should not be lost under the SFP. The Group agreed that the needs of schools should be identified by the SFP Co-ordinator in co-operation with these and any other relevant local personnel


The eventual full year cost of implementing the SFP into the full existing target group (NAPS School Groups, BSCFA recipients and others on a case-by-case basis) is estimated at "50m. For logistical reasons it will not be possible to achieve full implementation in a single year. The WG were of the view that the SFP should be introduced over a five-year period in keeping with the NAPS time frame. The Group set out two three-year phasing options with cost projection from "4m to "25.3m or "11.2m to "35.8m. The Group propose that the extension of the SFP to the BSCFA recipients be considered in the light of the outcome of the SFP over this period.

Monitoring and Evaluation

The Group agreed that accurate and appropriate measurement of the outcome of the SFP was important. Accordingly, a range of measures to establish the degree to which the SFP has achieved its short-term objective were agreed. These indicators were grouped under welfare, education and health, and included measures relating to targeting, food deprivation, punctuality, attendance, examination participation, retention rates, nutritional status and dental health. The Group also set out some efficiency indicators - ratio of inputs to outputs at central and school level, wastage and duplication of resources.


The value of the contribution of adequate school meals to undernourished children should not be underestimated. To quote from a leading US authority in the field:
"Perhaps the greatest costs associated with undernutrition among children are the more intangible ones. In economic terms, these are "opportunity costs" … In this area the lost opportunity is the contribution that nutritionally-deprived children might otherwise make to society as a whole and to the productivity and well-being of their families in adult life.
The life long effects of chronic undernutrition are cognitive limitations and behavioural impairments that restrict educational experiences and later adult productive capacity. One of the better predictors of a person’s lifetime productivity is the number of years of school completed. Poor performance early in school is a major risk factor for dropping out of school in later years. Nutritionally deprived children are unable to benefit fully from schooling which, in turn, diminishes their potential as adults. This is a cost the nation pays indirectly through lost contributions and directly through the provision of additional social welfare services.
And research consistently established that federal initiatives such as the School Breakfast Program … have positive effects on the cognitive development of children. The benefits include higher performance on standardised tests, better school attendance, lowered incidence of anemia, and reduced need for costly special education."

Last modified:30/09/2008

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