5 Reasons Ireland’s School Meals Programme Must Improve & Expand

Ireland’s School Meals Programme

Ireland’s School Meals Programme has come a long way over the past 20 years, but it falls far short of world leaders such as Japan, France and Finland. Ireland, on occasion, has been a trendsetter (first country in the world to ban smoking in workplaces; first country to legalise same sex marriage by popular vote; first country to end investment in fossil fuels), but all too often, we find ourselves copying others’ homework.

The Urban School Meals Scheme, designed to help underprivileged children, was introduced in 1914, and extended to Gaeltacht schools in 1930. In 1975, schools in Dublin County Council areas were included. To call what the scheme offered a “meal” is a massive overstatement; but a carton of milk and a sandwich was definitely better than nothing. Since then, various programmes have been instated, such as the Free Milk Scheme and Food Dudes, designed to improve the health and wellbeing of Ireland’s children.

When the Department of Education launched DEIS, (Delivering Equality of opportunity In Schools) in 2005, Ireland’s School Meals Programme became part of the manifesto. In 2019, the Department contributed €57 million to feed more than 1500 schools – approximately one third of total primary and secondary schools – with priority given to areas of disadvantage and special needs schools.

Each pupil is entitled to a contribution of €3.90 per day covering the following:

  • €0.60 for breakfast of wholemeal cereal or bread and fruit or dairy.
  • €1.40 for lunch of a sandwich or roll, fruit, and a drink.
  • €1.90 for dinner of a hot meal (meat, poultry, egg or beans; potatoes, pasta or rice; two servings of vegetables or fruit) and a drink.

The scheme is to be commended and is truly a step in the right direction, reflecting the progress Ireland has made over the past century. However, some areas are problematic. Qualification for the scheme requires an annual application, meaning that a backlog of paperwork, red tape and bureaucracy is inevitable, with vulnerable schools susceptible to inevitable human error. Numerous schools will be disappointedly omitted, including schools and students who would greatly benefit from inclusion. Schools who do qualify are then burdened with the responsibility of deciding the range of meals provided.

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International Standards

Several countries around the world legislate for the provision of school meals to every school at primary and secondary level. This negates the need for constant application, which in turn, negates the possibility of unfair exclusion. As well as universal participation, most governments establish guidelines for nutrition, removing accountability from individual schools and ensuring the promotion of a healthier diet and lifestyle. This is crucial at a time when obesity is the most common disease affecting Europe’s children.

Across the developed world, the country with the lowest levels of obesity in children and adults alike is Japan. Several studies attribute these low levels to the country’s school meals program. The first school meal was served in Japan as far back as 1889 but did not become a national program until World War I. In 1946, a new program was launched with the aim of promoting the healthy development of children and increasing school participation rates.

The role of the school lunch programme in Japan is not simply to provide meals but is part of the curriculum; as important as history, science, or any other subject. The program teaches children healthy eating habits; promotes cooking and eating together; increases interest in nutrition; and provides students with necessary calories and nutrition.

The Japanese government studies nutrition and eating habits to shape their school meals. Parents, who regularly taste-test the food, pay ¥250 (€2) per day – approximately half the total cost – with local governments contributing the remainder. All meals include carbohydrates, vegetables and meat or fish using exclusively fresh ingredients. 

Where possible, meals are prepared on the premises; if no cooking facilities are available, local councils provide the food. Students take part in preparing and serving meals and cleaning up after themselves. As an incentive, the class with the fewest leftovers at the end of each month receives an award.

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While Japan is top of the class, there is much Ireland can learn from our fellow Europeans. In France, teaching healthy eating is a priority; children learn about food in the classroom as much as the lunchroom. Food is a bedrock of French culture; as such, the government considers it their duty to provide a freshly-prepared, daily meal, with 30 minutes allocated for children to eat their food slowly and properly. 

Meals consist of a starter of vegetables, salad or soup; a warm course of meat, fish or eggs with a side of vegetables or grains; a dairy product; and a serving of fruit. Water is the only drink available. Menus are posted online and constantly updated. Vending machines and junk food are banned.

Parents contribute to the cost of the food, with the remainder subsidised by local municipalities. The contributions made by families are means tested, so the meals are equally available to all children. Similarly, school meals in Estonia and Czech Republic are heavily subsidised, with parent’s contributing approximately half the total cost.

Students in Sweden and Finland are entitled to free school lunches at both primary and secondary level. The meals are financed by local tax with an emphasis on food quality and bringing chef skills into school kitchens. Institutions without their own kitchen receive meals from a local contractor or a neighbouring school. Both countries follow the same guidelines for a balanced meal: one third protein, one third carbohydrates, one third vegetables.

Other countries, such as Spain and Italy, provide school meals designed to develop healthy eating habits, but parents pay the full cost of schools meals, between €3 and €5 per day. Private companies are contracted to provide lunches including omelettes, salads, meat, fish and pasta; and desserts such as yoghurt and fruit.

Reasons to improve

1. Health Benefits

Obesity is the most common disease affecting Europe’s children, increasing the risk of immediate and long-term health conditions. Availability and access to food is a key factor, meaning that the most deprived socioeconomic groups are at greatest risk. In Ireland, almost 25% of primary school children and 20% of teenagers are overweight.

Governments who take responsibility for providing school meals with clearly established nutritional guidelines produce healthier children and therefore a healthier society. 

Irish post-primary schools harbour a particularly unhealthy diet:

  • 70% have a canteen, half of whom offer chips; 
  • 52% have a food shop with soft drinks, crisps and chocolate bars available; 
  • 40% have vending machines, stocked with equally unhealthy snacks. 

Mandatory school meals remove the lure of these drastically unhealthy options. Moreover, the importance of banning vending machines cannot be overstated. As well as eliminating intermittent snacking, there will be far more incentive for students to fully partake in their healthy meals if the insurance of chocolate and crisps is removed. There may be an initial period of students refusing the healthy offerings, but a few days of hunger-by-avoidance would be quite coercive.

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2. Investment

Overweight children become obese adults. In Ireland, the economic impact of obesity fluctuates around €2billion per year, putting a tremendous strain on health services due to treatment of chronic health problems such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Proactive investment now would curtail these costs down the line.

There is a societal incentive to promote childhood health; in just one generation, today’s children will be at the front line of our economy, government and social sectors. We will rely on them to manage our nation and our planet.

In the immediacy, a universal school meal programme would generate hundreds of local jobs including farmers, food distributors, processors, caterers, drivers and equipment suppliers.

One major flaw of the current system is that once a school qualifies for funding, every student enrolled is entitled to a free meal, regardless of their individual needs. Meanwhile, countless children who are desperately in need of the service are excluded because their school was not eligible for funding. 

The 2019 governmental contribution of €57 million is designated to feeding approximately one third of enrolled pupils. An increase of 25% would yield an additional €15 million; 50% would be almost €30 million, generating short-term and long-term societal health. Spending money today to save money tomorrow – this is how nations advance.

Nevertheless, as demonstrated in Japan, France and elsewhere, government funding alone is insufficient; for the program to be successful, there must be parental contribution. Currently, students receive food costing €3.90 per day. For some parents, this is easily affordable; for others, it’s monumentally exorbitant. This should be reflected in parental contribution. 

Making school meals mandatory would shift the paperwork and bureaucracy from school applications to parental means testing, paving the way for a truly equal programme. In a tiered system, with parents paying the full cost, half the cost, or nothing at all, parents are further incentivised by the removal of having to buy the food, prepare the food and coax children to eat the food.

There is a plethora of independent companies involved in the crucial sub-industry of providing school meals all over the country. But, as with so much in Irish society, there is very little joined-up-thinking. Surely it would be preferable and easier to monitor if the government were to select one company responsible for each region, for example, Dublin, Leinster, Connacht-Ulster, Munster. That way, companies are not put out of business, but relocated.


3. Food Education

Ham sandwich, apple and a Club Milk. Cheese sandwich, banana and a yogurt. Egg sandwich, crisps and a Penguin Bar. There was a formula. No one strayed from the formula. 

A repetitive school lunch can limit a child’s experience with different and interesting foods. Ireland is home to some of the pickiest eaters in the world. We all have that friend who lives on toast and fast food; that friend for whom ketchup and mayonnaise are an exotic extravagance. The average Irish person tends toward a beige diet; a spectrum of whites, yellows and browns. But it’s not their fault. Not really. Studies show that propensity to be adventurous with food begins at a very early age; school meals teach children lifelong healthy eating habits while also encouraging school attendance.

Furthermore, an Irish lunch break lasts between 30 and 40 minutes, so food is scoffed down as quickly as possible to allow for more pressing matters; eating is an afterthought. Finland, France and Japan all allocate time specifically for eating, without sacrificing time for play and exercise. Assigning 30 minutes solely for eating and an additional 30 minutes for free time would allow students to enjoy their meals in a more social, communal environment.

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4. Social Equality

Just as school uniforms foster an environment of equality, so too do school meals. With uniforms, there can be no peer pressure to wear certain clothes, styles or brands, thereby reducing the opportunities for discrimination and bullying. The provision of meals to all school children, regardless of background or family income, eliminates similar stigma; peer pressure not just from child to child, but from child to parent. Peer pressure to have branded foods, not generic supermarket equivalents; peer pressure to have the right lunch box; and even racial and ethnic discrimination based on what’s inside that lunch box.


5. Integration

Wholemeal cereal or bread and a serving of fruit or dairy is the perfect breakfast to start our children’s day. Ireland’s problematically picky population, however, is less well served by the lunch offering of a sandwich, fruit and a drink, which does little to deter from the oft preferred beige diet. Lunch alternatives exist. Salads. Soup. Skewers. Or if we really want to think outside the box, there’s onigiri – rice balls filled with fish, meat, pickles or veggies, usually wrapped in dried seaweed.

But it is the hot meal which offers the best chance to avoid repetition and broaden our children’s experience with and knowledge of new and different foods. Once the nutritionally optimum model of one third protein, one third carbs and one third vegetables is adhered to, the shackles are off. 

Young children are more open-minded and responsive to foods they may never otherwise be served at home. It is important to note, this is not a campaign to eradicate traditional Irish staples; there will always be a place for bacon and cabbage, shepherd’s pie or a hearty beef stew. But there is also a place for enchiladas, gyoza, pierogi, balandėliai, yuk sung, okonomiyaki, seeji, khichdi, egusi, moqueca, sishebo, and other dishes you’re now busily googling. 

If nothing else, this would promote a feeling of equality and inclusiveness among children from all backgrounds, helping the integration of migrants through food and the social tool of eating. 



Mark Comerford
Mark Comerford

Mark is a chef and blogger putting a new spin on food journalism.
Follow his blog - No Eggs, No Milk, No Problem

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