Thursday, July 18, 2024
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Of human kindness and curdled milk

Tomorrow marks the fifty-seventh anniversary of the end of free milk in New Zealand schools.

The scheme – a world first – was introduced by the first Labour government on March 1, 1937, Initially rolled it out in Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington, and Dunedin, the milk was being provided to more than 80 per cent of New Zealand’s school children by 1940.

The primary reason given for the government starting the scheme was concern children were not getting enough calcium in their diet, although the fact this apparent problem happened to coincide with a surplus supply of milk was presumably also a factor.

In order to extend its shelf life, the milk used for the scheme was pasteurised to kill off microorganisms that would cause spoilage and was then put into sterilised, glass, half-pint bottles similar in size to a 300ml [plastic] bottle of cream today.

The local milkman would deliver the milk early in the morning to schools in crates that were left at the school gate.

The pupils who were appointed as milk monitors would later lug the crates from the gate and leave them outside the classrooms, where they could sit for several hours before the milk was drunk – which is when the one downside of the otherwise enlightened scheme kicked in.

The milk would warm up and – the pasteurisation process notwithstanding – on occasion curdle.

Needless to say, many children were less than enthused about drinking milk that had spent hours in the hot sun, let alone started to separate, but – on the basis that it was for their own good – consuming the cow juice was compulsory.

As such, it wasn’t unusual for reluctantly choked-down milk to be regurgitated shortly thereafter, and an unintended consequence of the scheme was that many of the children who were the recipients of the government’s beneficence developed a rather counter-productive hatred of milk that they’d carry for the rest of their lives.

The scheme was finally knocked on the head in 1967 by the second National government for reasons of cost – and because some had begun to question milk’s health benefits [whether there was also concern about destroying a generation of potential consumers’ interest in the product is unclear].

There’s an obvious similarity between the milk scheme of yesterday and the current nationwide school lunch programme, which currently benefits 1800 students in Wairarapa.

Thankfully there’s little argument about the benefits that come from ensuring kids who might otherwise go hungry get at least one decent meal a day – including improved development and learning, concentration levels and behaviour, and school achievement and attendance – and it’s clearly a good thing the new government appears committed to continuing it. [As noted on page 4, the scheme is also something of a financial lifeline for hospitality businesses that have taken a battering recently].

However, when all’s said and done, the school lunch programme is merely a band-aid placed over the gaping wound that is food insecurity and, more generally, poverty, and it is to be hoped the new government is equally committed to seriously and systematically addressing the causes of these issues, which – it was reported yesterday – grew steadily worse under the previous government despite its frequently articulated aspirations to the contrary.

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