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School meals children in Northern Ireland could go hungry at Christmas

Food appeal: Pauline Leeson
Food appeal: Pauline Leeson
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

Hundreds of thousands of children in Northern Ireland run the risk of going hungry this Christmas when school holidays mean school dinners are no longer on the menu, it has been warned.

Concerns have been raised at the number of children, young people and parents who will have no food on the table during the festive season amid the additional stress and pressure on parents of buying Christmas presents and toys.

Figures from Children in Northern Ireland (CiNI) reveal that over 100,000 children and young people from low-income families rely on free school meals as their main source of nutrition.

That is why CiNI, which runs programmes that allow children to access food and activities here, is calling on all political parties to help end child and family poverty.

The organisation's chief executive Pauline Leeson said Christmas always puts considerable pressure on families in financial hardship.

"The sad fact is that thousands of children in Northern Ireland rely on the healthy meals they get in school to provide adequate nutrition," she said.

"During the upcoming festive period these meals stop and families on low incomes can struggle to find the resources to provide enough food for their children.

"As much as Christmas is a time for families to enjoy quality time together, the sad reality is that so many families here just cannot afford it."

Ms Leeson said the Christmas period puts immense pressure on families and she pointed to Northern Ireland's current "food poverty crisis" where "thousands of children are missing out on the main meals of the day or eating less nutritious food".

"Good nutrition is vital for the development of children and young people and those who do not receive it are at a disadvantage," she said.

"That is unacceptable in this day and age and our local political parties need to help put a stop to this.

"Parents are at breaking point with some of them going to bed hungry while they try their best to feed their children and make ends meet."

Pointing to CiNI's work to improve the wellbeing of children and young people, Ms Leeson said they operate partnerships to provide, for example, Holiday Hunger projects in Portadown, Carrickfergus, Downpatrick and Limavady during the holiday periods.

But she said the current lack of government and the welfare reform mitigation packages coming mean "things are getting worse".

And now CiNI is asking all political parties to commit to ending child and family poverty and to make it a priority as well as urging local businesses to provide vital financial support to its Holiday Hunger projects to help the organisation ultimately achieve its end goal of "ending holiday hunger".

Carrickfergus mum Cathy, who took part in CiNI's 'Carrickfergus Gets Active' programme, and whose children accessed food and activities last summer, said that sometimes food banks are her only option.

"As parents you're trying to find the money for everything - the money for clothes, the money for food, and trying to get the money for all the clubs," she said.

"You don't have that money to go out and buy a proper dinner every night in the week, you're having to rely on food banks at times to get the kids fed."

Referring to the Get Active summer scheme, however, Cathy said it was a huge relief "not to have to worry about where we're getting the money for the kids from".

For further information, call Children in Northern Ireland on 028 9040 1290.

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