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Coronavirus: Children who receive free school meals must not miss out says expert

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Nearly 100,000 NI pupils are entitled to free meals

Nearly 100,000 NI pupils are entitled to free meals

Nearly 100,000 NI pupils are entitled to free meals

A child poverty expert has called for Government action to make sure children entitled to free school meals do not miss out if their schools shut.

Nearly 100,000 children here are eligible for free school meals - a key indicator of deprivation.

They are set to be affected when schools in Northern Ireland close.

Goretti Horgan backed an umbrella organisation that looks after the needs of children in Northern Ireland, which called for direct payments to be made to families on low income to cover the costs of providing the hot meals children get at school.

Pauline Leeson, chief executive of Children in Northern Ireland (CiNI), said low income families cannot afford to stockpile food.

"We recognise that schools may need to shut to prevent the spread of virus - however, families were already struggling before," she said.

"This will make it so much worse for them to be able to afford to feed their children at home. They are not in a position to stockpile food as many others have been doing.

"For many children and young people, the meal they get at school will be the only one."

The Department for Communities has said every effort will be made to ensure families receive benefits on time.

But Ms Leeson added: "Direct cash transfers to families would be a far more effective tool in order to aid parents to weather the storm.

"It would also be quicker than providing vouchers for food or funding for lunch clubs, which would be inconvenient for families who are self-isolating or in quarantine."

Ms Horgan said taking hot meals directly to the homes of children who usually get free school meals was another solution.

She said: "In other parts of the world where the spread of coronavirus has shut schools, they are opening them at lunchtime solely for the provision of free schools meals but it is being done in a controlled way to make sure there is only a certain number of children there at any one time.

"A better solution I think would be to take the food directly to the children's homes. That way if they are in isolation, no one has to leave the home.

"It is so important that children who are entitled to free school meals get them when the schools here close.

"We have to ensure they are fed because children who are hungry will have a reduced immune system."

Ms Horgan said the practicalities of making sure children who are entitled to free meals receive them is the responsibility of Stormont ministers and should not be foisted upon schools.

She added: "Whatever is the best way to make sure children who are entitled to free school meals get them is something that must be worked out at ministerial level, but it is important that a solution is found.

"It must not become another burden foisted on the shoulders of school principals and their staff - they are already being left to deal with enough uncertainty."

Data on entitlement to free school meals was published by the Department of Education last April.

It showed that across all school types, including special schools, 99,142 pupils were entitled to free school meals, down 1,112 pupils on the previous year.

Pupils entitled to free schools meals represent 29.3% of the total school enrolment.

Belfast Telegraph