Home School Liaison Coordinator, St Michael’s National School, Cootehill, Co. Cavan
Pupils who lack balanced diets may struggle mentally and physically. To counter this, a programme is extending a helping hand to Irish homes by providing healthy food that can boost children’s health.
According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), 1 in 13 Irish people were at risk of poverty prior to the pandemic. This means their disposable income is impacted and less than 60% standard/normal, which means they are unable to afford heating and other necessities.
Food programme supporting schools
In such restricting economic times, some children might not be receiving balanced meals at home. Helping to counter this trend is the Tesco Ireland Stronger Starts programme, which is restarting to coincide with the new academic year. The programme, which started in late 2021, delivers healthy and nutritious food packs that include apples, onions, potatoes and carrots (or seasonal produce). This month, Tesco has committed to doubling the reach of the Stronger Starts programme by the end of 2024, aiming to provide food packs to 240 DEIS (delivering equality of opportunity in schools) primary schools.
Being able to help parents and students
Leontia Sheridan, home school liaison officer at St Michael’s National School in Cootehill, is in contact with hundreds of parents. As St Michael’s is a beneficiary of the programme, she disburses the food packages to 25 families each week in term time. “Food insecurity can dominate people’s lives. People need to know they have fresh fruit and vegetables to make a stew. This programme helps us to take some of that pressure off people’s minds,” she says.
Sheridan, who has been in her role for nearly five years, says her main goal is to support the parents. “You don’t always know which families are having trouble putting bread on the table,” she explains. “If a child comes in hungry, we deal with things discretely. I might pop to the classroom and mention it to the teacher.”
Part of her role is to drop off the food packages to families. “It gives me that personal contact with parents, which is so important as a big part of my role is being visible and available to help parents improve their child’s health and wellbeing outcomes.” She adds that a highlight of her job was receiving a WhatsApp image of a meal a family had made with the package they provided.
Food affects overall health and performance
Although there’s no silver bullet for ensuring pupils receive a balanced diet, Sheridan feels that the programme is a big part of the wider conversation. “While I support and educate parents on the importance of breakfast and healthy eating, I can also signpost them to doctors and dentists if the child might need further support.”
Part of student wellbeing is having a positive and stimulating environment at school. In turn, being in school enables achievement, wellbeing and wider development. Sheridan recalls a recent visit to the school where Minister for Social Protection, Heather Humphries says: “Healthy eating is at the centre of pupil performance. It actually improves school attendance if schools are offering tasty meals.”
Driven by community support
Providing meals goes a long way in helping the community, surpassing balanced diets and improving classroom engagement. It is an effort that helps people in the cost of living crisis and amid global conflicts that have led to food insecurity. It unites the community while alleviating financial pressures. “It’s a great connector,” insists Sheridan.
“There are people moving into the area, for example from Ukraine, who are starting new lives in terms of housing and work but also navigating a different education system. The food support helps us to offer them some practical help while, at the same time, being a way of staying in touch if they need advice in other areas.”