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Free school lunch packs a punch

There are concerns in Wairarapa about the possibility of the central government’s free school lunch scheme coming to an end when its funding runs out in December.

There are currently 1800 of the region’s students who benefit from the Ka Ora Ka Ako programme.

While he has yet to guarantee it will continue, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has said National continues to support the initiative but is looking at whether it can be improved and deliver results ensuring value for money.

Treasury, however, has expressed scepticism about whether it’s worth continuing.

In sharp contrast, Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Wairarapa principal Phillipa Rimene believes the initiative is “absolutely brilliant” and that it should include every school in New Zealand.

“If the programme ceased to continue, it would be to the detriment of a lot of students, whānau and parents and probably schools,” she said.

Since the scheme was introduced, Rimene, Lakeview School principal Tim Nelson, and Masterton Intermediate principal Russell Thompson have each observed positive impacts like increased student attendance, enhanced routine, decreased food poverty, and reduced pressure on whānau.

“We used to have students that wouldn’t come to school because parents had no kai,” Rimene noted.

“We don’t have that anymore.”

“We would certainly hope that the lunch programme in schools will continue to be available in the future,” Thompson told the Times-Age.

“It has been a fantastic initiative that has been of huge benefit to our school.”

Nelson said the government could save “a bit” of money if the scheme is ended but that spending $300 million to fund it is a no-brainer.

“Picture in your mind the $228m that has been spent since 2016 on the light rail network in Auckland, and a shovel has never even gone into the ground,” said Nelson, contrasting that with how “the moment that the free school lunch programme was announced, straight away kids were getting free lunches”.

Nelson believes providing lunches reduces shame for parents who would otherwise not send their children to school because of financial hardship.

“If you take it away, it’s almost better never to have had it – you’re going to be aware of what you’re now missing out on,” he said.

In response to criticism about food wastage in the initiative, Nelson said it isn’t an issue because any leftover lunches are either given to community groups to distribute or fed to pigs.

Wairarapa electorate MP Mike Butterick, meanwhile, is a firm supporter of the scheme, although he does point out that “the National/ACT coalition agreement commits to improving the cost-effectiveness of the Ka Ora Ka Ako programme, because Treasury documents show there is currently
much wastage and we are taking advice on opportunities for improvement”.

“Lifting the educational achievements of all Kiwi kids is something I’m passionate about,” Butterick said.

“I believe it’s impossible for children to learn on an empty stomach.

“The cost-of-living crisis has put household food budgets under extreme pressure, and food programmes work well in some schools.”

The Ministry of Education [MoE] states that about one in five New Zealand children are in households struggling to put nutritious food on the table.

“In communities facing greater socio-economic barriers, 40 per cent of parents run out of food sometimes or often.”

The Ka Ora, Ka Ako programme targets the top 25 per cent of students facing the greatest socio-economic barriers nationally, to support food security, general wellbeing, and attendance.

MoE data shows there were 10 Wairarapa schools and kura with 1799 students that participated in the programme in October 2023.

The Treasury Budget 2023 Information Release said around 48 per cent of Māori students who are part of the scheme “have not benefited on most metrics, such as school functioning [e.g., paying attention in class], health, and mental wellbeing”, while “evaluations have found no impact on attendance”.

“12 per cent of lunches [around 10,000 per day] are currently surplus to requirements. MOE is working on a pilot Delivery to Attendance scheme to help manage this.”

Treasury noted that although ministers can decide whether to establish the programme permanently, it doesn’t recommend this until it’s shown to be effective for Māori.

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