'As a school, it’s the least we can do': School Meals programme continues through crisis

The country’s School Meals programme is continuing and demand is greater than ever, says Jess Casey
'As a school, it’s the least we can do': School Meals programme continues through crisis
North Monastery Primary School assistant principal Maria Carroll and second-class teacher Jill Kelly packing their cars to deliver hampers to families of pupils. Pictures: Larry Cummins

The country’s School Meals programme is continuing and demand is greater than ever, says Jess Casey

Many people mightn’t think much of turning to their cupboards and finding a few spare tins of beans, a box of cereal or a bag or two of pasta, or of opening their fridge to find a surplus of fruit, veg, meat and cheese.

Many can’t comprehend the idea of going without even the barest of bare essentials, but it’s a situation faced by one in 10 people in Ireland today.

Defined as the inability to have an adequate, nutritious diet due to issues of affordability or access, food poverty is currently being exacerbated by the Covid-19 shutdown.

Schools, food banks, and charities are now stepping in and working overtime to help those most affected in their communities.

Every school day, more than a quarter of a million children avail of the School Meals programme across the country, which gives them access to healthy food that they mightn’t be able to access any other way through their school.

Now, new updated guidelines see the programme continuing as an essential service allowing it to continue over Easter despite the school closures, with schools now working on how to best operate the service.

One such school is the North Monastery Primary School in Cork City.

“We are a Deis band-one school so some of our kids would be the most vulnerable really in the city,” explains Colin Daly, the vice-principal of the school in Fairhill.

People don’t realise the full extent of food hardship in Cork City even at the best of times, he believes, and those not affected by it can’t wrap their heads around it.

“I know people who just can’t comprehend it that there are some people who are dependent, and fully dependent, on meals being delivered to them by the school.”

North Monastery school secretary Cait Linehan in charge of the Easter eggs
North Monastery school secretary Cait Linehan in charge of the Easter eggs

Not every pupil of a Deis school depends on school meals, he explains. Each child’s needs, and those of their family, vary from student to student, even within the same classroom. That’s the case in the North Monastery, says Mr Daly.

“But it’s a sad reality for some kids even today in Ireland. Teachers expect them to come in with their full school uniform, their tie tied tight, and their black shoes on, with their homework done, and they haven’t been fed the night before or the morning of.

“Teachers have to be very realistic in how we approach them and in our attitude towards them.”

Mr Daly and the teachers at the school are seeing the economic effects of the virus shutdown first hand.

You’d kind of get a feel for some of the families who could struggle from this but I’ve never seen it as evident as this in the last couple of weeks.

The fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic is also affecting the charities fighting food poverty, with social enterprise FoodCloud recently issuing an emergency appeal. This followed a 50% decrease in surplus food donations as a result of panic-buying and stockpiling.

The company, which matches surplus food from supermarkets to communities in need and oversees the distribution of 160,000 meals each week, foresees an “unprecedented shift” in the need for food distribution in the coming weeks.

News that funding for the School Meals programme is to be continued during the shutdown was widely welcomed. The announcement followed serious concerns raised by teachers, through the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), over the needs of their most vulnerable students in the weeks ahead.

They include students living in direct provision, homeless students, children with complex needs, and children with disabilities. In particular, teachers were concerned about the children who rely on school meals to keep them fed.

Teacher Ann Daly helping to pack hampers to be delivered for pupils. There are daily and weekly deliveries
Teacher Ann Daly helping to pack hampers to be delivered for pupils. There are daily and weekly deliveries

“To be honest, the confirmation that we were allowed the funding for school meals was a great relief to me,” says Mr Daly, laughing.

“Because we were doing it regardless so we could have found ourselves in a lot of trouble.”

In the weeks since the schools have closed their doors, the teachers and staff at North Monastery have been working to put deliveries together.

It started with a few phone calls made by Mr Daly. When the original order came to close the schools in March, the school donated its most recent deliveries of fruit and water to Cork Penny Dinners.

“I sent out a text to parents that day but no one had responded,” explains Mr Daly.

I’d say they were kinda saying ‘Oh the two weeks will pass and we will be fine,’ but I think some of the families in our area are starting to feel the pinch now, more than ever.

It’s not every family in their school who will need the package, he says. “But I kind of personally identified a few families myself that were in need and I just knocked on the door. I had tried to call but there was no answer, so I just stopped at the door. I’d know a good few of them anyway being from the area myself.

“I just said ‘this is completely confidential, no one will know you are availing of this but the school would like to help you out’. They were delighted. Others then, I sent out a message on our text system, left my mobile and email address, and said, again completely confidential, ‘If you’d like to avail of it, let us know.’ We have got quite a few people responding to it, just saying if there’s anything going, let us know.

“The last week or so, maybe a little bit before that, I got a number of texts and emails, just asking if there was anything going, could we do something. Originally it started off as just something really small, just kind of sandwiches and water, and then it grew. The more I was talking to the parents, the more I was getting the feel for what was needed.”

The primary school runs a regular breakfast club and a lunch club. “Some of our students have kind of figured out that if they come in five minutes before school then they will miss the first five minutes of school because it takes 10 minutes to feed them,” says Mr Daly, chuckling. “But they come in in the morning and they get a full breakfast: Cereal, toast, tea, and a fruit bowl every morning and it really sets them up for the day. You can see the difference in their behaviour, and in their attention span straight away.”

Driver Ian Casey, of Singleton’s SuperValu of Hollyhill, makes a food order drop at the North Monastery Primary School in Cork.
Driver Ian Casey, of Singleton’s SuperValu of Hollyhill, makes a food order drop at the North Monastery Primary School in Cork.

Now, the school is making both daily and weekly deliveries. Daily deliveries include a small pack of cereal, some fruit and maybe a sandwich, or something along those lines.

“Weekly ones then would be pasta, a big box of cereal, tinned food, and anything really that we can get and that they can hang on to themselves. With the sandwiches now, for instance, it’s very hard to get them going at the moment with the guidelines from the HSE but with the non-perishable stuff it’s much easier and it’s much healthier and safer at the moment if you’re delivering those then than anything else really.

“We have a number of teachers that are available that don’t have the younger kids to mind or elderly parents and they are volunteering to come in, and are abiding by the social distancing and everything that the HSE has brought forward.”

Mr Daly says the whole school is doing its part — students and teachers. “Our sixth-class boys volunteer. Before the virus kicked in, they were volunteering down in Cork Penny Dinners on a Friday for an hour, just kind of peeling potatoes and helping out and they would bring in food themselves from home for Cork Penny Dinners to use whatever which way they wanted to, so the school has a good attitude towards helping others in general.

We’re blessed with the teachers we have. They work with these children day in, day out, so they know them the best. They see the need for it.

“They put themselves in harm’s way, I suppose, with this virus but you can really see it doesn’t bother them, it’s what needs to be done. When you see the nurses and doctors, all these people in the essential services, again not paying too much concern for their own personal safety.

“I feel as a school, it’s the least we can do, if they [healthcare workers] are putting themselves at risk. It’s the least we can do.”

‘If money is short the only thing you can cut back on is food’

North Monastery staff Catherine Hayes, Carl O’Brien, principal, and Bernadette Kelly packing the hampers for pupils. ‘Some of the families in our area are starting to feel the pinch more than ever.’
North Monastery staff Catherine Hayes, Carl O’Brien, principal, and Bernadette Kelly packing the hampers for pupils. ‘Some of the families in our area are starting to feel the pinch more than ever.’

You can’t “pigeonhole” the people affected by food poverty, according to Kate Durrant, a volunteer with St Vincent de Paul Cork .

“The only thing you’ve got to cut back on, if money is short, is food,” she explains. “You can’t cut back on your rent because then you are going to be out on the street.

You’ve got to put the money in the electricity meter. You’ve got to find the fiver for your child if they need it in school, so it is food that suffers because it is the only thing people can cut back on.

Each week, SVP Cork delivers boxes of essential food stock to 2,500 households across Cork City and county.

Like each of the food banks and non-profit organisations the Irish Examiner spoke to, it has experienced an increase in demand for its services amid the current crisis.

Many have had to adapt to new guidelines in order to protect their volunteers and the people they work with.

Many of the organisations involved in putting together food hampers are also now linking in with local schools, helping to expand on school meal deliveries going to families.

One such group is Feed Cork, which runs a regular after-school programme along with distributing boxes filled with a three-day supply of nutritious food to those who need it.

The group typically operates a pick-up service for the boxes — meaning Covid-19 has drastically changed its operations, according to Hamp Sirmans, director of Feed Cork.

“We’re starting to co-ordinate with Deis schools now, to provide extra support and additional food to what they are doing for children.

Miriam Cotter, assistant principal, as the staff prepare hampers for delivery to the families of pupils.
Miriam Cotter, assistant principal, as the staff prepare hampers for delivery to the families of pupils.

“Most schools now are continuing with their food programme in some form or measure, so what we are trying to do is add to that.”

Feed Cork is hoping to supplement the current packs going out to families, explains Mr Sirmans.

“They are not huge food packs. They would be maybe a loaf of bread, there would be some milk, maybe a box of cereal, a lunch meat, and some snacks. So while there would be food there, it wouldn’t be enough.”

The charity is also hoping to put together a pack to be distributed for Easter, says Mr Sirmans.

It’s all a bit in flux at the moment.

Kerry’s only food bank, Foodshare Kerry, is also experiencing increased demand for its services since the Covid-19 shutdown, according to manager Courtney Sheehy.

The non-profit organisation takes food from the EU’s Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived, along with surplus from local businesses, and redistributes it to its community partners across Kerry.

These include family resource centres, homeless shelters, women’s refuges, and Meals on Wheels.

Foodshare Kerry also delivers individual food hampers to families in Tralee and its environs.

“Demand has increased and with that there’s lots of challenges. When demand increases, so does the challenge of logistics, and delivery,” says Ms Sheehy

Foodshare Kerry has been forced to cancel fundraisers due to the shutdown. “We would have been relying on [those fundraisers] to get petrol for the van or to cover insurance so straight away our income is down. But our expenses have increased because our van is on the road much more often.”

’’We are just a network of people trying to help in a crisis’’

Michelle Darmody: ‘Everyone really wants to help as much as they can... there is just a massive amount of goodwill out there.’ Picture: Fergal Phillips
Michelle Darmody: ‘Everyone really wants to help as much as they can... there is just a massive amount of goodwill out there.’ Picture: Fergal Phillips

Schools grappling with redistributed or reallocated food into their communities can now access a database of shops, caterers, and chefs nationwide who have volunteered to help out however they can.

Food in Schools, a food education policy network group, has created a portal where schools can register their details to receive a list of operating local businesses offering to assist.

Schools are providing essential lifelines into communities at the moment with many food banks operating under heavy restrictions during the crisis.

But principals and staff are already overloaded, attempting to juggle childcare and the new working conditions brought on by the pandemic. This is where Food In Schools steps in, according to Michelle Darmody, food campaigner and Irish Examiner Weekend columnist.

“We’ve been meeting for two years, just looking at food education in schools,” she explains.

When this crisis started happening, I suppose we are aware that we have connections both with schools and in the food industry, because we have a lot of chefs and different people involved.

“Our response to the crisis is to be a conduit between the two. If a school needs help, not every school principal would know the easiest and best way to get the food redistributed or reallocated into the home. So we will hopefully be able to provide them with a link.”

The response to the callout was overwhelming, says Ms Darmody.

“Really lovely people are coming on board offering to help. There’s great energy from people, everyone really wants to help as much as they can within the guidelines from HSE and taking social distancing and protection and everything on board, but there is just a massive amount of goodwill out there,” she says.

“We now have a database of people around the country who are available to step in and help, whether they be a food shop, a food caterer, or a chef.

A principal or a school can just come on to our website, fill out the form, and then we will call the school and figure out what they need, then put them in touch with people in their area that can help.

It’s completely up to the schools, it’s whatever they need, so we will just put them in touch with maybe two or three different options in their area and they can work out what works for the families they know who need the food.

The majority of schools on the School Meals programme have catering companies they work with regularly, says Ms Darmody.

“But there is another cohort of schools that don’t have that link or their caterer isn’t operating at the moment, or for various reasons, I think everything is just thrown up in the air at the moment.

“We are just a network of people trying to help in a crisis. I know people in the Department of Education have just been anxious for any kind of network or community that can help to get involved.

“We just have a lot of connections with people in the food business between chefs, caterers, food providers, food shops, people who have access to wholesale food. They’re just people who have offered to help basically, it’s not any fixed group of people, it’s just people who have offered to help.”

Schools or principals who would like to register their details with the network can visit foodinschools.ie, email contact@foodinschools.ie or see @foodinschoolsIE on Twitter.

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