Free lunch program for underprivileged children failed to reach the most needy

September 8, 2017

Photo: Abcúárton Magócsi

Summer free lunch programs for children failed to reach the families most in need due to lack of preliminary planning and an inadequate number of social workers, reports the print weekly 168óra.

The government will broaden its summer free lunch program for children at the beginning of next summer, announced undersecretary overseeing social affairs and social convergence Károly Czibere. This summer 208,000 underprivileged children were entitled to get a daily free lunch if their parents requested the service. Although the government allocated HUF 6.67 billion (USD 26.2 million) for this purpose, the program failed to reach the poorest families according to various social activists.

In a small village near the northeastern Hungarian city of Miskolc, the municipal council used the free lunch program as a means to force Roma parents to bring their children to the segregated kindergarten in the Roma neighborhood instead of the integrated one, according to Anikó Kiss, founder of the Social Package Delivery Movement.

Nóra L. Ritók, the founder and director of the Pearl Foundation, which helps underprivileged families and provides art education to their children, told 168óra: “I experienced in our neighborhood that parents who requested it received the free lunch. Unfortunately, however, the council did not provide this service on weekends and non-working days. Numerous families noted that there were problems with both the quantity and the quality of food.” Ritók said the nearby government-run Erzsébet camp offered much better quality food but very few children could attend it from the poor neighborhood, despite the government’s claims that the Erzsébet camp is for underprivileged children.

Human rights activist Benő István Lázi said: “In Sajókaza [families] had to go to the school for the food, far away from the Roma neighborhood. The choice of venue was unfortunate since not all parents could walk the several kilometers-long distance, particularly in 40-degree heat. In contrast, in Alsózsolca [the council] distributed food at two venues, so everybody could retrieve food at a nearby venue, which was a more humane solution.” Lázi noted that food was distributed only between noon and 2 pm, making it impossible for parents employed in public work schemes to retrieve the portions. “[Families] where there were no older siblings to send for food were left without lunch,” he said.

According to human rights activist Katalin Sztojka, in the southern Hungarian town of Kalocsa the neediest were deprived of the free lunch program due to administrative obstacles. “During the summer holiday, many parents received an application form for the summer free lunch,” she said. “However, some of the parents cannot fill out a form like this. […] I do not understand why these families are required to apply when their children are already entitled to get free meals during the school year.”

Some families organized self-helping circles. Nevertheless, many poor Roma families could not manage to get into the town center for the food, according to Sztojka.

In many settlements, children were left out of the program because the council chose to reconsider the entitlement to regular children protection allowances during the summer holiday. Until a new resolution was made, these children were not entitled to get free meals, social policy expert Judit Berki told 168 óra.

The inadequate number of social workers is one of the main reasons behind the disorganization of child protection programs. According to a recent poll by social research institute Tárki, some family support centers cannot even fill the minimum number of positions stipulated by the central budget. According to employees working in the social welfare system, the dire staff shortages could only be eased by wage correction. It is common for social workers to struggle with the same financial problems as their clients.