Free public school meals to cost $16M per year

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Education Minister: Public school enrolment grew by 11%

The Cayman Islands government anticipates spending about $16 million per year to provide school meals to all public school students. The government launched the new school meals programme this fall semester for primary schools and plans to extend it to secondary schools in January 2022.

Education Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly outlined the spending on the school meals programme and other initiatives during last week’s meeting of the parliamentary Finance Committee.

Under the new programme, all public school students will be provided with 3 free meals per day — breakfast, snack and lunch. In order to pay for the estimated cost for this fall semester, covering primary schools and the specialised Lighthouse School, the Ministry of Education requested a supplemental budget appropriation of $3.1 million.

Citing budgetary pressures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Connor-Connolly said the decision was made to limit the programme to primary schools initially, and then extend it to secondary schools as part of the new 2-year budget which will begin in January 2022.

She said the annual cost for meals in primary schools will be $7.7 million, for secondary schools will be $7.9 million and for the Lighthouse School will be $366,300.

Acknowledging that the cost of the programme is significant, O’Connor-Connolly said, “It is difficult to justify to a developing and well-developed community that we can provide 3 well-rounded meals to our inmates at Northward [Prison] but we have difficulty providing meals to our schoolchildren.”

She said research bears out that the long-term benefits of addressing childhood hunger will more than make up for the upfront expense.

“We found that during COVID as we had the opportunity and privilege to go to visit more homes and get more personal contact with the parents, there is a colossal need out there within our society, and it isn’t as rosy as when we drive around the front streets,” she said. “The affluence has not yet penetrated through the various stratifications of our society, and I believe it would be a gross mistake for us not to take care and put in that investment.”

School enrolment, meal costs

During the meeting, O’Connor-Connolly said that enrolment in government schools was approximately 5,200 students.

That would represent an 11% increase in the number of public school students compared to 2020, would be the greatest number on record, and would reverse a nearly-decade-long decline since public school enrolment previously peaked at 4,956 students in 2012.

The Education Minister referred to improvements in recent inspection reports as a possible reason for the growth in enrolment.

O’Connor-Connolly and others, including new Department of Education Services Director Mark Ray, emphasised that costs of the new school meals programme are only estimates, and that the figures will become more precise as the programme gets under way and officials learn how many students actually take advantage of the programme and how often — with an eye to minimising wasted food (i.e. through a pre-ordering system that is being rolled out) and eventually linking the meals programme to changes in academic performance and student outcomes.

Accounting for the $16 million cost of the programme, the population of 5,200 students, the 3 meals per day, and the 185 ‘teaching days’ during the school year, the average costs are as follows, approximately:

  • Per student, per year: $3,100
  • Per student, per day: $16.60
  • Per student, per meal: $5.50.

(Note that the fall semester contains about 38% of the teaching days for the entire school year, which explains why the cost of the meals programme in primary schools is $3.1 million in the fall semester out of the annual cost of $7.7 million.)

For context, the non-profit Feed our Future has provided free or low-cost school meals to about 200 students per year, with each student receiving lunch and a drink or snack. The NPO budgets around $6 per day for primary school students and $8 per day for secondary school students.

During Finance Committee, O’Connor-Connolly alluded to the inconsistency in operations of public school canteens, where some are run by a contractor, some by the school’s Parent Teacher Association, etc.

She said the current setup would not change immediately with the introduction of the free meals programme.

“As far as I’m aware that will continue,” she said.

O’Connor-Connolly said making the free meal programme universal, rather than ‘means-tested’, eliminates social problems caused by differentiating between students of different income levels.

She said a previous programme linking Needs Assessment Unit assistance with school meals was a “disaster”, and that some children receiving assistance had to wait until the other children purchased their melas first, before they had the opportunity to get their meals.

She said providing the free meal programme, which will be overseen by a nutritionist, should stymie complaints that the government isn’t investing enough in public education.

“The finger will no longer be pointed to us, saying the resources are not there,” she said.

“The fingers can point to where it should be pointing a long time ago, and that’s to the parents who have that awesome responsibility of mentoring, leading and nurturing those children,” she said.

Scholarships, masks, private schools

In addition to free school meals, the Ministry requested millions of dollars in supplementary funding for a variety of programmes.

The biggest request was an $8.1 million increase in local and overseas scholarships, on top of the original $10 million allocation.

O’Connor-Connolly said roughly half of the $8.1 million was for prepayment of scholarships for the spring semester, so that the availability of scholarship funds won’t be affected by transitioning to the new budget cycle in January.

She said the other half was to align current scholarship funding to the $15 million the Ministry had originally requested, to fund additional scholarships and the increased award amounts for existing scholarships.

The Ministry also requested $1 million for ‘Private and Public School Grants’.

Ministry of Education Chief Officer Cetonya Cacho said those funds will be distributed to private schools who have been requested assistance, citing a handful of private schools that had been rated ‘Weak’ by inspectors and need help to improve. She said half of the students in those private schools are Caymanians.

She said the government is increasing its expectations of what data private schools need to provide, particularly in regard to students with special education needs and disabilities.

Cacho pointed out that the original amount in the Grants line item was $250,000 for public schools, for example if they wanted to apply for a grant to pay for a specific STEM education project.

Other supplemental appropriations requests include $220,200 for cloth masks (for example for students riding school buses); and $111,623 for educational and training assistance.

O’Connor-Connolly said decisions have not yet been made on COVID-19 mitigation measures in schools following the anticipated reopening of the border in October.

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