Hungry children are coming into school with holes in their shoes, say teachers as they beg for help
Teachers in Northern Ireland cannot fight food poverty on their own, the president of the Ulster Teachers' Union has warned.
Susan Thompson, vice principal of Hart Memorial Primary School in Portadown, was speaking after a leading charity claimed food poverty was a breach of human rights.
Her comments also come after the Children's Future Food Inquiry into food poverty across the UK said young schoolchildren in Northern Ireland should receive a free portion of fruit or vegetables every day.
Another key recommendation contained in the report is that children receive a free meal every day in the first three years of school regardless of income.
Ms Thompson pointed out that the "findings hit right at the heart of our community" because "two young people from this area sat on that inquiry committee along with stakeholders from across the children and young people's sectors".
She said: "Those recommendations also follow on the heels of figures from the End Child Poverty campaign which revealed that almost a quarter of children in this constituency area are living in poverty.
"None of this is any surprise to teachers as sadly we daily see the evidence in front of us when we hear children are coming to school hungry, with holes in their shoes, unable to afford to go on school trips, all the things everyone else takes for granted.
"As a teacher it's hard to watch and we have always tried to help these families whenever we can but with so many other financial issues pressing on schools, it's becoming increasingly difficult and so it is these children who are suffering most."
Ms Thompson said families "who are managing" might find it hard to believe that pupils in their children's class are coming to school hungry in this day and age but, she stressed, "it is a fact".
"It is often much more complicated than that family simply not having enough money to feed the children," she said.
"There may be other issues at work too - mental health issues, a parent with a disability, alcohol or domestic abuse.
"The result is that it's the children who often bear the brunt.
"They're not receiving the nourishment they need to thrive and learn and so the vicious circle threatens to repeat itself."
She added: "Teachers can only do so much. We can't fight food poverty alone and we would ask for the funders to ensure this most vulnerable section of our school communities receives the support they deserve."
Last week, the Strategic Principals' Forum sent a letter from 540 principals to the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service saying that children are "suffering" and teachers are "on their knees" due to the ongoing lack of a government.
They asked David Sterling to raise the "extreme urgency of need" facing education with politicians.
The principal of Maghaberry Primary School, Graham Gault, who wrote the letter, told the Belfast Telegraph that schools were "past breaking point".
"Surely, in a properly functioning society this wouldn't be a question for discussion?" he said.
"The fact that so many of our children are starting out in life with such deficit is a sign of failed politics and sadly indicative of how much we, as a society, are willing to accept our most vulnerable to suffer.
"Without a functioning Executive we are at the mercy of the winds and I appeal again, most strongly, that our public representatives put our children at the forefront of negotiations."