A Scottish council is aiming to offer children access to free school meals 365 days a year, in what would be the most ambitious scheme in the country.
It’s to tackle what’s known as “holiday hunger” — with parents struggling to feed their children during the 175 days a year when they aren’t in school.
A third of teachers said pupils were coming back to school after the holidays with signs of malnourishment, in a survey carried out by the National Union of Teachers last year.
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Charities have also reported that pressure on food banks doubles during the school holidays, according to the Guardian. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest network of food banks, said parents were having to skip meals so they could afford to feed their children.
Now, North Lanarkshire Council has unveiled plans to feed children who qualify for free meals on weekends and throughout the holidays as well, through its Food 365 programme.
“These proposals to tackle weekend and holiday hunger are at the most ambitious in the country,” said Councillor Frank McNally, the council’s education convener.
“This goes beyond ‘holiday hunger’ to cover the weekend period, too, because what teaching staff were picking up is that some children were leaving school on a Friday and not having another substantial meal until they came back to school on the Monday,” McNally told the Guardian.
He added that skipping meals has “a massive impact” on behaviour, concentration, and cognitive development.
“It’s horrendous to think that in 21st-century Scotland children are coming to school malnourished, but it’s the sad reality that some families face the choice of heating their home or feeding their children,” he added.
North Lanarkshire is one of the poorest regions of Scotland, with 21% of children living in low-income homes — one of the highest concentrations of deprivation in the country.
The scheme would work by giving qualifying pupils aged 4 to 14 a “club card” for free meals, according to the Times.
Meals would be served in community centres and local leisure facilities at weekends, so that children won’t be put off by having to go to school at weekends — and the ensuring social stigma.
Pupils would also be encouraged to get involved in sporting and leisure activities, and there are plans for welfare officers to be available to give informal advice to parents who might be struggling.
A pilot plan will be launched this Easter, according to the Scotsman, and, if it works, it could be extended to 16,000 pupils — at a cost of £500,000 a year.
North Lanarkshire isn’t the first to trial free school meals during the holidays, but none of the other programmes in place are as ambitious.
North Ayrshire and Aberdeen already provide free meals during the holidays. North Ayrshire has been rolling out a holiday school meals programme over the past five years, according to the Scotsman, which now covers the whole region.
“Since being originally launched in three schools, the holiday school meal programme has gone from strength to strength,” said Councillor Jim Montgomerie. “Last summer, it reached more young people than ever and ensures that every child, no matter their background, has access to a warm, healthy meal when they’re not at school.”
In Aberdeen, meanwhile, councillors have backed plans to expand the Food and Fun initiative, which was trialled in three schools during last year’s summer holidays. A further 10,000 free meals will now be provided during summer, October, and festive holidays during 2018/9 school year — at a cost of £35,000.
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“It is vital that we give young people in Aberdeen the best opportunity to realise their potential and this is an example of a way in which the council can play its part,” said Aberdeen council’s co-leader, Douglas Lumsden.
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