Cutback threat to free school lunches draws flak


Associate Education Minister David Seymour wants to see hard evidence showing that the free school lunch programme is lifting attendance and achievement (Photo: Pexel)

Venu Menon
Wellington, March 5,2024

“We want to make sure that the school lunch programme is effective, that there is no wastage of food, no wastage of funds, that [the funds] are deployed in the best possible way,” Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has said on the subject of the Healthy School Lunch Programme or Ka Ora, Ka Ako.

“What I’m interested in is making sure that the kids who need school lunches get school lunches, but also that we deliver it in the most effective way that we possibly can,” he added.

The prime minister was responding to a query at the post-Cabinet press briefing on Monday on whether the government would continue with the school lunch programme that guaranteed every child would get a free school lunch.

Associate Education Minister David Seymour had sparked concern across the education sector after he questioned the efficacy of the programme in lifting school attendance or achievement, and wanted to cut back funding for it.

Ka Ora, Ka Ako, introduced by the Labour government in 2019, currently provides free lunches to over 220,000 schoolchildren.

Seymour said the programme, which cost around $325 million annually, needed to be backed by hard evidence. Otherwise, it represented wasteful expenditure.

But health sector professionals and researchers argue the programme is a source of nutrition for schoolchildren from deprived households who went to school hungry.

Luxon was at pains to point out that the “Labour government was going to stop funding it [school lunches] in January 2025.”

“We believe in the programme. We are now funding the programme, but we want to make sure that it’s been effective,” he added.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a global study of school achievement, says children who went to school hungry lagged behind their peers.

It says New Zealand “ranked second worst in the OECD for the number of students missing meals due to lack of money.”

“Achievement for students in food poverty was up to four years behind their food-secure peers, even after accounting for socioeconomic deprivation,” the study notes, and adds that Ka Ora, Ka Ako assists partially by providing nutritious lunches in one-quarter of schools in New Zealand, “but, with rising food insecurity, it is not reaching enough students and achievement is falling behind.”

Of the 25 OECD countries who provided data on food poverty, New Zealand had the second highest rate of students who, in the previous 30 days, “had missed a meal at least once a week because there was not enough money to buy food (14.1%),” the study points out.

These figures paralleled rates of food poverty found in South American countries such as Colombia and Chile. “We had the third highest rate of students in severe food poverty, with 6.5% of students saying they missed meals more than four times a week,” the study observes.

In the classroom, this translates to an alarming lag in academic achievement. “Students who missed meals even just once a week scored mush lower than their peers who never went hungry,” according to the study.

As a result, students in New Zealand who miss meals because they lack money are two to four years behind in maths, reading and science achievement, compared to their schoolmates who never miss meals. This holds true even after socioeconomic status is factored in.

Alarmingly, the one-year period between 2022-2023 saw ten years of progress in reducing child food insecurity being reversed, which points to the relevance of the school lunch programme.

However, the PISA study also notes that “the majority (60%) of 15-year-olds in food poverty do not attend Ka Ora, Ka Ako schools and miss out on the [free lunch] programme.”

Health Coalition Aotearoa, a collective of organisations and individuals committed to promoting best practices in health, has called for the number of schools receiving the free lunches to be doubled to ensure that more students are covered by the programme.

The International PISA report concludes: “Not least, how we treat the most vulnerable students and citizens shows who we are as a society.”

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington

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2 Responses

  1. Tēnā koe – i’m keen to know what study you’re referring to: “the study notes, and adds that Ka Ora, Ka Ako assists partially by providing nutritious lunches in one-quarter of schools in New Zealand, “but, with rising food insecurity, it is not reaching enough students and achievement is falling behind.”” because it doesn’t seem to be the PISA study? Same for the quote at the end? Thanks! Ngā mihi Kathleen in Wellington

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