Northern Ireland

NI schoolchildren 'should receive free fruit or veg'

Child lifts an apple Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption About 85,000 children in Northern Ireland were living in relative poverty in 2017/18

Young schoolchildren in Northern Ireland should receive a free portion of fruit or vegetables every day, a new report has said.

It also recommends they receive a free meal every day in the first three years of school regardless of income.

Those are two of the key recommendations of the children's future food inquiry into food poverty across the UK.

The inquiry report criticises Northern Ireland's "dismal" breastfeeding rates.

Northern Ireland has the lowest breastfeeding rates in the UK.

Relative poverty

The inquiry spent a year investigating issues around children's food, especially for those aged up to 18 years old from low income homes.

Its committee includes MPs, academics and 15 young people from across the UK - including two from Portadown in County Armagh.

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Image caption Households where the net income is less than £14,000 per year are entitled to free school meals

The chief executive of the umbrella organisation Children in Northern Ireland, Pauline Leeson, was also on the committee.

Separate figures published by the Department for Communities estimate that about 85,000 children in Northern Ireland were living in relative poverty in 2017/18.

Those are children living in households with an income below 60% of the UK median income.

Free school meals

In Northern Ireland, the median household income before housing costs in 2017/18 was £480 per week - a 3% increase on the previous year.

Children in Northern Ireland are entitled to free school meals if they come from households where the net income is less than £14,000 per year or where their parents or guardians are on some benefits.

Recent figures published by the Department of Education show that 99,142 pupils were entitled to free school meals in 2018/19 - 29.3% of all school children.

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Image caption The report said a healthy diet was "unaffordable and unsustainable" for many young people living in poverty

The Children's Future Food Inquiry report said that the provision of free school meals to children from low-income homes was better in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK.

Its authors said, for instance, that less than half of children in England living in food poverty received a free school lunch.

However, they said that all children in Northern Ireland should receive a free daily meal up until the end of primary two regardless of their family's income.

Image caption School dinners also offer a "very social experience" says one NI headteacher

That echoes arrangements currently in place in England and Scotland.

The report also calls for a scheme in England whereby all children from the ages of four to six are given a free piece of fruit or vegetable each school day to be extended to Northern Ireland, as well as to Wales and all of Scotland.

'No brainer'

Sean McNamee, the principal of St Paul's Primary and Nursery School in west Belfast, said it was a "great idea".

"The meal itself is obviously a very important thing for children to have access to healthy food, but it is also a very social experience," he said.

Image caption Sean McNamee said a free school meal for all would remove any stigma

"In a lot of families children don't have a 'sit around the table' kind of dinner, so it's good to be able to provide that in schools.

"We're keen to make sure all children have access to whatever they need, breaktime or lunchtime food.

"We don't want any stigma - equality of opportunity for all children, the same social experience, the same food. It's a no brainer."

Breastfeeding rates

The wide-ranging inquiry also recommends action in a number of other areas, including councils taking measures to ensure fewer takeaway food outlets are opened close to schools.

It calls for a more comprehensive action plan to support women who want to breastfeed across the UK, calling breastfeeding rates "dismal".

"By the time babies are six to eight weeks old in England only 44% of them are still being breastfed," the report said.

"Rates are lowest in Northern Ireland where only 27% of babies are receiving any breast milk at six weeks and only 13% at six months."

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Image caption The report calls breastfeeding rates in Northern Ireland "dismal"

The report also calls for an independent watchdog for children's food to be established in Northern Ireland and separately in each of the other nations in the UK.

It said that governments should take measures to "rebalance" the cost of food to make sure healthy food was more affordable in comparison to unhealthy food.

The report said a healthy diet was "unaffordable and unsustainable" for many young people living in poverty.

"We face a grave situation with children's food, which is in urgent need of systematic leadership from all four governments across the United Kingdom," the report concluded.

The report does not, however, provide specific costings for many of the measures it recommends.

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