Education Ministry Gaffe Will Cause 180,000 Israeli Students to Go Without School Lunches

Under academic calendar reform, upcoming school year begins before September 1 for the first time, but hot lunches will start one to two weeks later, impacting 105 communities with long school day.

Some 180,000 pupils will be without a hot meal for the first week or two of school, as the Education Ministry neglected to ensure that this year's early start to the school year was matched by an early start to the school lunch program.

Under a reform of the academic calendar approved over a year ago, the upcoming school year will begin before September 1 for the first time. But the ministry recently informed municipal education departments nationwide that the hot lunches won't begin when school opens on August 27. Instead, they will begin in kindergartens only on September 3, and in regular schools only on September 10.

The students at issue, who include some 38,000 kindergartners and 142,000 regular school students, live in 105 communities where a long school day has been implemented.

"The local authorities are furious, and have filed repeated requests with the Education Ministry to reconsider this matter," one municipal official said. "The ministry must rescind this decision and begin the meal program at the start of the school year, as it always has done."

He added: "Many parents have contacted us to ask to explain this decision, and we have no satisfactory answer to give them. There's no reason why the meal program should begin more than one day after the opening of the school year, as has always been the case. We are asking that this matter be resolved, because it's inconceivable that they have made a decision that will ultimately hurt the weakest members of society" - those that need the hot meals most.

The long school day is supposed to be extended to additional locales this year, in line with the Trajtenberg Committee's recommendations on socioeconomic reform, which the cabinet adopted last fall. But that will happen only in October, after the Jewish holidays, since preparations are not yet complete.

However, it's not clear why the hot lunch program should also be delayed.

The ministry said the law governing the lunch program requires it to begin operating only after the Jewish holidays in the fall, and no later than the first of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, which this year falls on October 17.

Because of "the importance the ministry ascribes to this matter," it nevertheless decided when the law first took effect in 2006 to start the lunches at the beginning of the school year.

However, it said the law permits a later start date for good reason: to give the schools and local authorities time to make the necessary preparations, such as finalizing the list of students in each institution and determining which of them are actually interested in getting a hot lunch.