20,000 children fail to take up free school meals in NI
Almost 20,000 children in Northern Ireland who are entitled to free school meals do not claim them, it has emerged.
Pupils whose parents are on selected benefits, including jobseeker's allowance, and those on low incomes are among those who can claim free school meals.
But during the last academic year (2014/15) only 78,560 (80.6%) out of the 97,517 pupils who were eligible for free school meals availed of the service.
Department of Education statistics show that around 40% of all meals provided by schools are free. Most free school meals are served in schools in the Belfast area (53.4%), and the fewest are served at schools the Southern area (33.5%).
School meals cost £2.50 at primary schools and £2.70 at post-primary schools.
Now, as children are preparing to return to school, Education Minister John O'Dowd has urged all families who are entitled to claim the meals. Mr O'Dowd said a healthy and nutritious school meal can increase concentration, helping young people achieve their full potential.
"A child who is hungry may have difficulty concentrating in class," he said. "In contrast, eating a healthy school meal can improve a child's concentration, their behaviour and ability to learn in class which will ultimately lead to improved educational outcomes."
Mr O'Dowd spoke of his concern that not all those entitled to free school meals were claiming them. In 2013 the free school meal scheme was extended to independent schools so that a further 15,000 children became entitled.
Parents who think their children might be eligible for free school meals should contact the Education Authority for advice.