All pupils should receive free school meals, says minister

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Senator Sam Mézec said that he would raise the issue with his ministerial colleagues amid growing calls for an extension of the school meals programme both locally and in the UK.

Earlier this week, Jersey’s Children’s Commissioner, Deborah McMillan, called for the existing trial programme at Janvrin and Samarès primary schools managed by Caring Cooks, which was launched last year, to be extended.

Her comments came as support grows in the UK for a petition, which has received more than one million signatures, launched by footballer Marcus Rashford to extend school meals for vulnerable children into the holidays.

And Senator Mézec believes Jersey lags behind the UK in its provision of school meals for pupils.

‘I’ve never made it a secret that I think it ought to be an aspiration that we provide meals for all students in school,’ he said.

‘Lots of other countries around the world do it. We are an affluent society and I think it is a reasonable aspiration that we should be trying to get to that stage.’

He added: ‘Before the pandemic there was a pilot with Caring Cooks and I believe that was extended in the last Government Plan but our starting point is a lot further back than the UK.

‘It might be difficult to come up with a far-reaching scheme almost from scratch but Caring Cooks seem really optimistic that they can expand.’

A quarter of Jersey schoolchildren currently qualify for the pupil premium, under which schools receive additional financial support to improve their educational prospects. Senator Mézec – who is head of the Island’s only political party Reform Jersey – said that this was not a ‘definitive’ indicator of poverty but he felt the issue of deprivation was not taken seriously enough in the Island and had been exacerbated by the pandemic.

‘Speaking as Reform Jersey leader, our record is clear that we have pushed time and time again for measures to reduce poverty by bringing propositions such as increasing the minimum wage and we will keep doing that,’ he said.

‘With the pandemic, people are losing shifts at work or in some cases jobs. We did well throughout the worst of the pandemic but there is a risk things may start to get worse.’

His views were echoed by Citizens Advice chief executive Malcolm Ferey, who said he was concerned about the welfare of young Islanders going into the winter months.

‘Food poverty is just another form of poverty where we have seen some great work done during the pandemic,’ he said.

‘I think it is great what the faith groups, in particular, have done to help people but this pandemic has perhaps highlighted the issues we have.

‘As we approach winter the classic question for many people of “do I heat or do I eat” arises and it is particularly concerning that children might be affected.’

The trial school meals programme has been run by the Caring Cooks charity, which also recently won a contract to provide catering services at five secondary schools previously provided by Capsicum, a catering wing of the Jersey Potteries chain.

Dominic Jones, chief executive of JP Restaurants, said that Capsicum would be interested in tendering for an extension of the school meals programme in Jersey.

‘We would anticipate that any extended provision of “free” school meals would be offered initially to the current appointed operator to benefit from economies of scale,’ he said.

‘However Capsicum Catering would not discount tendering for the future provision of food to Jersey’s schoolchildren assuming it was economically viable for all stakeholders and ensured good, nutritious food was served to the Island’s children.’

Melissa Nobrega, the head of Caring Cooks, declined to comment when contacted by the JEP.

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