Free school lunches to sway voters or help children?

Is Slovakia's largest political party Smer-SD fighting a recent downturn with free lunches for students? Experts working with poor children support the initiative despite its populist origins.

Ria Gehrerová
Ria Gehrerová Denník N, Slovakia
Source: Denník N
Free school lunches to sway voters or help children? - NewsMavens
School lunch, Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

Former Prime Minister Robert Fico has proposed a new "social package" -- free lunches for all elementary school pupils and children in the last year of kindergarten.

It has been four years since Fico announced that all children, students and pensioners would travel by train for free. It was one of the most popular of his government's initiatives. And although he is no longer prime minister, he is still head of Slovakia's most popular party, Smer-SD. 

That is why many call this move populist, even though Fico is presenting this proposal as aid for all families (though he did not mention the Roma children).

However, experts and NGOs who are working with poor and Roma children are happy about the proposal because it could help children stay in school longer and learn better.

World Bank research shows that school feeding programs can lead to increased educational achievement and school attendance -- especially for girls. They have also linked increased cognitive skills with the more nutritionally balanced meals that school can provide. 

Details from the story:

  • Free lunches are common in most of the Northern-European countries which have the best PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results, but the prove a connection between free lunches and better results in these countries is not clear.
  • The Roma population in Slovakia makes up about 8% of the population and many families live in poor conditions. 
  • Some school principals say that 106 million can be spent better than for free lunches -- for example, on school renovation or buying new books for pupils.
  • Slovak students also have free week-long skiing courses and a week-long stay in the country organized by schools.
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