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Three months after the opening of the school year, half of the children eligible for school lunch are not getting a meal.

Only about 72,000 pupils,¬ some 50 percent of those eligible for a cooked lunch at school,¬ are receiving it, compared to 94,000 last year, according to the Education Ministry's figures.

The figures show that 21,377 children are to be added to the lunch program as soon as the logistics are hammered out in their respective communities. Altogether 140,115 pupils in 422 schools in 110 local authorities are supposed to receive lunch at school this year. However, Education Ministry officials do not know when, if ever, the 46,017 remaining children will be added to the project.

According to the "daily meal law" enacted two years ago, every school operating a long school day is obliged to provide lunch. Some 192,000 children fit the criterion. However, the law authorizes the education and finance ministers to determine the population of pupils entitled to a daily meal. Thus, Education Minister Yuli Tamir and Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson decided that only some 140,000 pupils would be eligible for lunch at school.

The project is financed by the Prime Minister's Office, Education Ministry, Rashi Foundation and local authorities, but its implementation is encountering difficulties.

"The idea of a school lunch is extremely popular, but the Education Ministry's financing plan is not realistic. Many of the local authorities cannot provide the required sums," said a source in the Union of Local Authorities (ULA).

"Some authorities are not allowed by an Interior Ministry auditor to take part in the project -¬ first they must see to teachers' wages, that there is power and toilet paper in the schools - ¬ it's a question of priorities," he said.

"Some authorities have not realized that the law is obligatory and say they are not interested in joining the project," says Tamir. "I asked the prime minister to circulate a memo among local authority heads demanding they uphold the law. If someone has a budget problem he can go to the exceptions fund for help."

Tamir said implementation has been slow because too many entities are involved without any enforcement powers. "The money is there, but the authorities aren't getting on with it. That is why we are trying to change the law, so that all the authorities would be coordinated by one body," she said.

"Despite the budget increment, the education ministry and treasury decided to provide lunch to only 140,000 children, that's the first sin," commented Knesset Education Committee chair Michael Melchior (Labor-Memad). "The second is government confusion, in which each side shifts responsibility onto the other, while the children suffer."