Government agrees in principle on extending free school lunches, but not on definition of “needy” families

Photo: Dáša Kubíková / Czech Radio

After months of debate, the coalition government has agreed in principle to provide free school lunches to children from the “neediest” families enrolled in nursery and primary. But the ANO and Social Democrat parties have yet to agree which families are “poor” enough to qualify, or when to implement the change.

Photo: Dáša Kubíková / Czech Radio
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch”, goes the adage, meaning that you can’t get something for nothing in this life. This certainly holds true in politics, where horse-trading is the rule. The two-party minority government has yet to hammer out an agreement, and savings or hard-fought budget cuts in other areas are sure to follow.

The junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats, are pushing to amend the Education Law to require Czech schools to provide free lunches for all schoolchildren up to grade three as of September 2020.

But Minister of Education Robert Plaga of the senior ANO party has rejected any “across-the-board” measure, convinced few families cannot afford the already subsidised meals, and thus advocating only “targeted” support for those truly in need.

His predecessor, Social Democrat MP Kateřina Valachová, whose proposal was rejected by the government at Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, told Czech Radio the issue is far from settled.

“Meetings continue in parliament. We are looking for solutions in two areas. First, how to support and help families with children – all families with children – because we don’t have the feeling many in the Czech Republic are dining on caviar and holidaying in the Canary Islands.”

Kateřina Valachová,  photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio
“Second, how to resolve the absolutely unacceptable situation where 100,000 children are going hungry in our classrooms. We’re also talking about children not receiving any government benefits or allowances – that’s very important to remember; children whose parents have such low incomes, sadly, they are forced to save even on school lunches.”

As it stands now, parents pay roughly 25 crowns – about 1 euro – per lunch served in an educational facility. The Ministry of Education has in place a subsidy programme through which it supports non-profit groups which arrange school lunches vouchers for pupils from impoverished families. The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs has a similar programme.

ANO first deputy chairman Jaroslav Faltýnek told Czech Radio following Wednesday’s cabinet meeting the coalition partners agree no child should go hungry at school, and should reach a compromise before April. The devil is partly in the details, he says.

“In principle, we agree that the state should contribute to lunches in kindergartens and primary schools for those children who need it.”

Photo: Czech Television
There are concerns in both parties that administration costs need to reined in. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, in fact, has supported going beyond the Social Democrats’ proposal to extend free lunches for all students through primary school. But he has argued that savings must first be found in how such programmes are implemented and overseen.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats are looking to raise the “subsistence minimum”, which has not kept pace with inflation in recent years, by some 11 percent. Until there’s agreement on that front, the “free lunch” programmes won’t be expanded. Minister of Education Robert Plaga is insisting only children of families with a household income of at most 2.7 times the subsistence level be eligible.