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21 May 2022

Free school meals must be extended beyond Easter, state SDLP and Sinn Féin

school meals

Mark H Durkan and Ciara Ferguson have both called for free school meals to remain in place for vulnerable families

The SDLP and Sinn Féin have both made calls for the extension of free school meals beyond Easter.

Mark H Durkan and Ciara Ferguson, who are both candidates for the SDLP and Sinn Féin respectively in next month's Assembly election, state that free school meals for the remainder of 2022 would help struggling families.

With a third of Derry living below the poverty line, many families have had to make difficult decisions on whether to spend what little money they have on heating their homes or buying food for them and their children.

It is feared that having to ensure their child is fed at school would be one added burden too many.

Mr Durkan said: “The Education Authority will be providing a payment over the Easter break for families eligible for free school meals, a crucial provision but sadly one which will not be extended beyond April 2022.

“This automatic payment, made to many vulnerable families, has been a lifeline over the past two years. I was among the first proponents of this payment amid the COVID pandemic. Our communities are still in a state of emergency and I would argue that the need for this payment is now more acute given the soaring costs of living.

“Foyle Foodbank has recently reported a 310 per cent increase in demand for their services over the past five years. That is absolutely astounding and unsustainable. It’s painfully clear that this crisis is hitting families hard. The loss of the Universal Credit uplift in October last year, has further exacerbated the issue, pushing people deeper into poverty.

“It is ludicrous to strip people of financial support when they need it most. That’s why the extension of the Free School Meal payment for the remainder of 2022 is a key ask of the SDLP Cost of Living Action Plan.

“We recognise the need to support 97,000 children and their families and it is vital that low-income families who aren't entitled to this payment, are also supported throughout this emergency.”

Sinn Féin's Ferguson said the Department of Education needed to act to prevent struggling families from going under.

She added: “With the living costs continuing to rise, families eligible for free school meal payments must continue to be supported.

“This is not a new scheme, the Minister (Michelle McIlveen) should do the right thing and extend the scheme going beyond Easter.

“Making sure children don't go hungry over school holidays should be a priority for all parties, the DUP Minister must take action to prevent a cliff-edge for the thousands of families who rely on these payments.”

In response, a Department of Education spokesperson said: “The Executive decided in November 2020 that financial assistance would be provided to families of children entitled to free school meals when at school during school holiday periods, including mid-term breaks between Christmas 2020 and Easter 2022.

“Any decisions on the school holiday food grant beyond Easter 2022 will be for an incoming Executive and will be subject to availability of funding.”

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