A public school programme that ultimately aims to provide free breakfasts, lunches and snacks to all 5,200 public school students, launched last week with the beginning of the new school year.

The programme will eventually cost approximately $16 million a year, but due to government’s current financial constraints, it has initially launched on a smaller scale covering just primary schools and the Lighthouse School.

Education Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly expects that free meals will also be available for high school students from January next year, if funds are provided as part of government’s next two-year budget.

Speaking last week in Finance Committee, which approved $3.1 million for the programme through the end of the year, she said research had shown that there are “social, psychological, physical and behavioural issues when some of our children are coming [to school] without meals or without proper meals.”

The new programme is overseen by a nutritionist to ensure that the meals are healthy and to help prevent issues like obesity, she said.

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The anticipated annual costs of the programme for 2022 are $7.7 million for government primary schools, $7.9 million for high schools and $366,300 for the Lighthouse School, which covers both primary and secondary education.

The education minister acknowledged that the programme costs are high but said that increased engagement with parents during the lockdown had shown there is “a colossal need out there within our society”.

She said, “I believe it would be a costly mistake for us not to take care [of school children]”, adding that the country had done well, even during the pandemic.

Mark Ray, director of the Department of Education Services, explained that a pre-order system is being put in place to ensure no food is wasted.

This will be incorporated into the student information system, so that the impact can be tracked all the way through to ultimate student outcomes, he said.

Due to the limited time to prepare for the programme, the department is tracking pre-orders manually in the first two weeks of the school year.

“But we anticipate within the next two weeks we will be in a position where we have everyone doing the pre-orders,” Ray added.

The system will also track food allergies and other requirements.

The education department has developed a food standards document that all vendors have to comply with. The department is planning regular inspections and information sessions for canteen providers to detail the types of food that should be served and their nutritional value, as well as the presentation and taste of the meals.

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