I propose to take Questions Nos. 1174 and 1175 together.
The school meals programme provides funding towards the provision of food to some 1,580 schools and organisations benefitting 250,000 children. The objective of the scheme is to provide regular, nutritious food to children who are unable, due to lack of good quality food, take full advantage of the education provided to them. The programme is an important component of policies to encourage school attendance and extra educational achievement.
As part of Budget 2019, it was announced that my Department would commence a pilot scheme from September 2019, providing hot school meals in primary schools at a cost of €1m for 2019 and €2.5m in 2020.
The pilot involves 37 schools benefitting 6,744 students for the 2019/2020 academic year. Officials from my department have visited all schools participating in the pilot to provide support and take feedback in relation to all aspects of the pilot. In general, the response to the pilot from teachers, parents and pupils has been very positive. Benefits identified include improved social skills through eating together and involvement by older pupils in distributing meals, the opportunity to try new foods, a change in eating habits from fast and unhealthy foods, and the guarantee of a hot meal during the day.
An evaluation of the hot school meals pilot is currently being undertaken to determine if the pilot has been successful. This evaluation is expected to be completed during the summer.
Budget 2020 provided an additional €4 million in funding to extend the hot meals for children currently receiving the cold lunch option, which will allow my Department to extend the hot meals from September 2020 to an additional 35,000 children who currently receive the cold lunch option.
Any further extension of the pilot programme can only be considered in a budgetary context.