The questions over who is to blame for children coming to school with neither breakfasts in their tummies nor a school lunch in their bag has quickly turned to: what can we do about this problem? JUDE BARBACK reports.
At one school, the camera took in lunch boxes laden with wholemeal sandwiches, wraps and bagels, fruit, nuts, and crackers. At the other, with the exception of the occasional bag of chips or can of cola, there was an utter dearth of food.
Sadly there are no prizes for guessing which lunches belonged to which school; the very word ‘decile’ in the education context gives us a preconceived notion of what to expect of matters like nutrition.
Yet the findings still came as a shock, even to principal of Edmund Hillary School, John Shearer, who declared himself “upset” at seeing the food, or rather lack of it, clearly in evidence. Seldom are we privy to such a clear illustration of the difference between rich and poor.
Shock quickly spread to public anguish, much of it directed at the parents of the unfed children. The bloggers, tweeters, and facebookers were all quick to point out that it doesn’t cost much to feed your kids healthy food. One scathing commenter even suggested a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ approach, whereby teachers check lunch boxes in the morning and after three missing or inadequate lunches, the school notifies Child, Youth & Family.
Many schools have come to the defence of the parents. Principal John Shearer believes that despite the likelihood of some inappropriate spending, most parents are just struggling to get by on minimum wage and provide for their families.
Others agree. “Our parents see feeding their children as a priority and there is always some sort – even if it is just bread and margarine on rare occasions,” says Michele North, principal of decile 3 Pukehina School. “Children can’t learn if they are hungry.”
All agree that regardless of the culprit, children should not have to go hungry. Khandallah School principal Louise Green echoed the sentiments of principals and teachers from all deciles. “You can debate the rights and wrongs of who is to blame and why it is happening but, if we want children to learn, a full tummy is so important,” she told Stuff.
Leader of the Labour party, David Shearer, used this tack when arguing his case for Labour’s proposed education plan. “I hear people argue that this is the responsibility of parents. We can debate that endlessly but it won’t change this reality: tomorrow morning kids will still turn up to school hungry. And a hungry kid is a distracted kid who can disrupt an entire classroom,” he says.
The Labour leader proposed a solution of working with existing community and voluntary organisations to roll out free food to 650 decile 1 to 3 primary and intermediate schools around New Zealand. The cost of such a scheme would be in excess of $10 million per year.
According to Stuff Sose Annandale, principal of decile 1 Russell School in Cannon’s Creek, thinks Labour’s proposal is “absolutely fantastic”. However, like many others, she is wondering where the money is coming from.
“It just means we can focus on what we’re meant to be doing, and that’s teaching and learning. [But] I’m thinking, how is [David Shearer] going to fund that?”
It is a good question. Where is this money coming from? Given the $1 billion promised for the renewal of Christchurch education, the provision of ultra-fast broadband, along with countless other tugs on the Government’s purse strings at the moment, it is little wonder Prime Minister John Key is not jumping up to match David Shearer’s offer.
The Prime Minister also points out that many schools already provide fruit or breakfast to kids in need, and not every school wants to provide lunch. The suggestion that Labour’s approach is perhaps too heavy-handed is supported by Otago University human nutrition and poverty associate professor Winsome Parnell, who expressed concerns to Stuff that a blanket provision of food to lower-decile schools would erode parental responsibility.
As John Key states, many schools do have programmes already in place to help feed children in need. These are reminiscent of the breakfast clubs in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, which are typically self-funded or supported by charities or food businesses. What David Shearer is proposing is more like the Government-funded school breakfast programmes operating in Wales and the USA.
Pukehina School, like many others, runs a Kickstart breakfast programme, whereby Fonterra and Sanitarium supply milk and Weetbix respectively. “We used to run our own before this – toast and spreads, which teachers provided and sometimes parents gave donations as well,” says principal Michele North.
Russell School relies on the lunches supplied by KidsCan charity for those most in need, in addition to the fruit supplied by the Government.
KidsCan has become a pivotal player in the issue. The charity already feeds 4500 children a day at 220 schools, but estimates that it would need $3.4 million a year to meet the total need of 15,500 children a day in the country’s 861 decile 1–4 primary and intermediate schools. KidsCan has proposed that the Government pays $1.5 million towards a comprehensive national programme to address the problem, with KidsCan raising the remaining $1.9 million from corporate and public fundraising.
The public have shown their enthusiasm for the cause with many individuals, businesses, and schools digging deep to contribute. Campbell Live’s ‘School Lunch Box Day’ campaign at the end of September raised a total of $319,000. A MORE FM campaign raised $100,000. Additionally, George Weston Foods increased its donations of Tip Top bread from 30,000 to 46,000 loaves a year, EaziYo offered to provide yoghurt, and the Trillian Trust pokie fund upped its ongoing grants to the charity by $200,000. All of which allowed KidsCan to begin providing food to the 70 schools on its waiting list.
However, lower decile schools feel vulnerable relying on charity, fearing it may be yanked from beneath their lunchboxes.
New Zealand Principals’ Federation (NZPF) claims the sponsors of food programmes being offered in many schools at the moment may change their sponsorship direction, leaving schools vulnerable.
“These sponsors are commercial businesses open to the cut and thrust of the market’s forces. They are not positioned to undertake a sustained programme of food provision for schools and could never offer the long-term certainty that children in these schools require,” states Phil Palfrey in a 2011 NZPF document.
The NZPF supports the research led by the charitable organisation Child Poverty Action Group, which suggests that while charity can make a useful contribution to support families, the problem of poverty affecting around 200,000 New Zealand children requires commitment from the Government and collective action from communities.
Since last year, the NZPF’s recommendation has been for governmental agencies to provide substantial breakfast meals to all low-decile schools and resource a paid worker to co-ordinate the programme in each school.
The Government has indicated it will consider a national food strategy targeted at children in need at low-decile schools.
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Deputy Prime Minister Bill English told Weekend Herald. “We need to address that directly in the context of the education budget.”
The education budget, already stretched this way and that and looking rather thin in places, looks set to be stretched further still. The thought of Kiwi kids going hungry is so appalling, let’s hope the Government is prepared, like the rest of us, to dig deep on this one.
ROBYN NESBITT of catering company Compass Group makes some recommendations on healthy eating for Kiwi kids.
- Porridge made with water is a cost-effective breakfast option, especially for larger families as it can be made in larger quantities. To make porridge appealing, add fresh, canned, or dried fruit or serve with yoghurt.
- Wheat biscuits are a high-fibre cereal option, and rice or corn-based cereals provide a moderate amount of fibre. Cereals that change the colour of the milk shouldn’t be consumed daily; these tend to have high amounts of sugar and are lower in fibre.
- Toast made from wholegrain or wholemeal breads should be encouraged, and according to research, 49 per cent of 5–19 year olds eat wholemeal or wholegrain bread most often.
- Low-fat milk should be used for children older than two years of age as trim milk has a higher calcium content than full-fat milk.
- Homemade, fruit, and dairy food yoghurts are all relatively similar in nutritional value, but portion size does play a factor. Thick Greek-style yoghurts tend to be higher in fat.
- Liquid breakfast drinks do have nutritional value; however, they aren’t promoting ‘food first’. They are also reasonably expensive per serve. For fussy eaters who are refusing to eat breakfast or those on the go, better alternative options would be fruit, toast, or a sandwich. Milkshakes and smoothies are good options for children who participate in sports at a high level and need additional sources of energy to promote growth. The pre-made or powdered milkshake flavours can contain just as much sugar as soft drinks so if children aren’t overly active then these should be classed as a treat food.
- While fast food breakfast options may be convenient, they are not a healthy choice; even the yoghurt and muesli combinations are not a good option as toasted muesli is higher in fat; portion sizes tend to be large as well.
- Fruit juice should be limited to one serve per day and cordial and soft drinks should only be given occasionally (less than once per week) due to poor nutritional value and high levels of sugar.
- home-made popcorn
- vegetable sticks such as carrots and celery, peanut butter boats (celery with peanut butter inside)
- raisins, dried apricots, prunes, or dried cranberries – just a small handful is a serve
- scroggin: unroasted, unsalted nuts, dried fruit
- jelly and fruit – as a treat, every now and thensandwiches
- rice crackers, low-fat crackers, crisp breads
- low-fat cheese (cottage cheese, edam)
- home baking: ideally high in fibre with added bran or oats, and low in sugar with banana or apple – watch the portion size
- fruit: whole or pieces