Weapon against child poverty: free or low-cost hot meals at school

Providing free or affordable healthy food at school is a tool in the fight against child poverty and for improving the quality of education. This is the conclusion of a new study by Hiva-KULeuven and HoGent, which De Standaard reported on Monday.

Providing free or low-cost meals at school impacts several fronts, says Ides Nicaise of Hiva (Research Institute for Work and Society, KU Leuven). Preschool children's awareness of healthy eating improves, and classroom participation and well-being increase. School attendance is also enhanced.

The study is based on a pilot project in Ghent, in the province of East Flanders, where eight schools were allowed to offer healthy food in every preschool class for two years, with financial support from the city. Some schools offered a free hot meal at lunchtime. Others opted for a healthy snack or "upgraded" the lunch box. A third group implemented a discount system for vulnerable or all preschool children.

With this initiative, Ghent wants to help children, especially those from poorer backgrounds. "It is necessary to be able to provide a meal, especially in schools with a high number of vulnerable young people and preschool children," says Rudy Coddens, Ghent alderman for social policy and the fight against poverty (Vooruit), stressing that this is a responsibility at Flemish and even federal level.

The need for increased attention to children in poverty is evident from recent statistics. In 2021, 12.7 per cent of children in Flanders will be born into economically disadvantaged families. This share has almost doubled in just over ten years, from 8.6 per cent in 2010. Children in urban areas face a higher risk of poverty.


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