You may not have heard of Kaitao Intermediate School but you’ve probably driven past. The school sits in the Western Heights area of Rotorua, home to Mt Ngongotaha and the Skyline, one of the country’s most-visited tourist attractions. At the Skyline, visitors line up to shell out large sums of cash in exchange for riding the gondola, luge and Sky Swing, to stargaze, taste wine or to eat lavishly in a restaurant that affords panoramic views.

Just six minutes down the road, however, there is a distinct absence of cash to splash. In fact, even the basics are out of reach for a lot of students at Kaitao School. Staff here club together to buy lunch supplies, and each morning deputy principal Debbie Holmes butters, marmites and jams dozens of sandwiches so the tamariki don’t go hungry.

For this school, one of 30 chosen for the government’s lunch in schools trial, the free food can’t come soon enough. “I’m really, really happy it’s happened,” says principal Phil Palfrey. “I think it’s long overdue and we’re quite excited about it. It’ll mean that every child will have lunch and no-one will be feeling anxious about when they’re next going to be fed.”

Hungry kids pose a big problem for schools because they cannot learn efficiently, no matter how hard they try. Without energy to function properly, hungry children have problems with memory and concentration, and are more likely to exhibit anxiety and aggression.

Research by Unicef New Zealand cites poverty as “the single most disruptive condition affecting a child’s education. There is evidence that stress arising from food insecurity affects a child’s ability to focus in class or attend school at all.”

According to the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), schools in Aotearoa Zealand have been stepping in to feed hungry students since the 1990s, and the need rocketed in the mid-2000s. Schools reported multiple stressors affecting families’ ability to provide food for their children; parents working long hours and/or multiple jobs, low incomes, lack of access to transport, and issues around housing including overcrowding and transience.

The tension for schools was whether to usurp parental responsibility by stepping in to feed their children or to make sure the children had eaten sufficient quality food to learn.

While policy makers argued about the rights and wrongs of providing free lunches for children, a number of charities and social enterprises stepped in to plug the gaps. One of these, KidsCan, now delivers food to 740 low decile schools – almost one third of all schools – throughout New Zealand

But from January 2020, the food assistance landscape will change when students in schools selected for the two-year trial will start receiving free lunches, a scheme to be rolled out to more than 120 schools by 2021. All schools in the programme have children with high levels of disadvantage, according to the Ministry of Education’s equity index.

“One in five children experiences moderate or severe food insecurity, and in our most disadvantaged communities, 40 percent of parents run out of food sometimes or often. The free lunch programme is focused on improving child wellbeing by addressing food insecurity and supporting children’s engagement, progress and achievement in their learning,” says the Ministry.

While the $45 million trial has been welcomed by many, the scheme is not without its critics. Opposition MP Nikki Kaye says a better approach would have been to ask schools what food assistance they needed rather than to “pick who’s going to get what”.

“National certainly is not opposed to some schools choosing to deliver universal food assistance but history shows us that not a one-size-fits-all approach works.”

The Kickstart breakfast programme, free milk and cereal, was introduced under the National government and had been taken up by fewer than half of all schools so the idea that all schools want universal lunches was mistaken, she says.

But others say that the free cereal programme, while helpful, is not enough. Nor does it necessarily reach the students who most need it because of reasons associated with poverty, for example, being late to school because of having to look after younger siblings until a parent returns from nightshift.

Added to this, hungry students can be reluctant to show up for free food because of whakama, or shame.

“There is a stigma around asking for and receiving kai at school,” says Debbie Holmes at Kaitao School. “We have examples of students who accept food at schools so that their friends, who they know are hungry, will also accept it.”

The impact of free lunches in schools is clear to all at Hastings kura, Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Wānanga Whare Tapere o Takitimu, where students sit together for lunch donated by KidsCan. They say the group meal times do more than fill their tummies, that it’s brought about a sense of community and calm.

“Some of our students aren’t that fortunate at home, they don’t have food in the cupboards, but they know that when they come to kura there will be kai and that gives them a sense of security,” says 17-year-old Harono.  “Having food in your stomach while studying or learning is very important, if I don’t have kai I am distracted from my work and I would be worried about when I could get any food.”

Manukatea, 13, agrees. “Being able to receive lunch at school takes so much weight off my parents’ shoulders and they are so grateful. They don’t have to worry about us on Mondays because they know we’ll get kai at school, we don’t have to wait until pay day on Wednesday.

“At my last school we didn’t have the privilege of free kai and some kids had no lunch. Most of the time food would get stolen from bags because kids were hungry and a lot of kids were just sad. But here we get free lunch and it’s really wonderful to see everyone eating, sharing and caring about each other. Now you see kids focusing on their work, and they have energy and smiles.”

 

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