Free lunches funding set to be slashed

Funding for the free school lunches programme will be reduced by as much as 50 percent under the new coalition government.

Associate Education Minister David Seymour confirmed last week that the Ka Ako, Ka Ora | Healthy Lunches in Schools programme will have its funding reduced by up to 50 percent last week, prompting huge outcry from health advocates and the education community. 

Started in 2019 under the Labour government, the free lunch programme targets the 25 percent of schools rated most in need by the Equity Index. Over a thousand schools currently participate and over 220,000 students – a quarter of all students – are being served by the programme.  

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During the election period, Seymour called the programme “wasteful” and stated they supported abolishing it. National has stated its support for it, however, meaning the programme will likely remain in some form. However, Seymour said that 30 – 50 percent of the programme’s funding will be cut, with the exact figure set to be revealed on budget day, May 30.  

Prime Minister Chris Luxon has said that although the programme was under review, it didn’t “necessarily” mean that less children or schools would receive free lunches. Instead, Luxon has said “we can make it more efficient, more effective and make sure there’s less waste.”  

The programme has been beset with accusations of waste, with around 12 percent of the lunches being left-over each day, according to a report from the Treasury last year. However, schools stated that surplus food often gets sent home to whānau or donated to the community.  

Evaluations of the programme have found varying outcomes. In 2020, some schools noted that their students were eating better and their wellbeing had improved from the programme. In 2022, another evaluation found hauora had improved among high school students receiving lunches, through there was no significant change in attendance and achievement. In 2023, another report found other benefits included community building, food security and job creation.  

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However, other reports such as one from the Treasury cast doubt on the programme’s value for money due to a lack of quantitative outcomes like attendance and achievement measures.  

But educators and health advocates are pushing back on the announcement, outlining the benefits they’ve seen from the programme over the past five years.  

Craig Adams, principal of Westport South School said the programme “enables success for our students” and said before the programme, “some students were just not having a school lunch. 

“We would constantly have to be buying and supplying school lunches out of our operating grant, which takes away from other initiatives that we need to pay for in school. 

“For some people who can’t afford [groceries], school lunches are a real lifeline.”  

Range Maxwell, principal of Porirua College described the programme as one of the most successful education initatives from the government and did have a direct impact on learning outcomes.  

“It’s making a real difference for young people and their ability to learn, attend school and succeed with their work. Removing any support from it is going to cut back on the effectiveness of the programme of the number of people it’s trying to reach.”  

Arihia Stirling, principal of Te Kura Māori o Ngā Tapuwae, a kura kaupapa Māori school, has also spoken in favour of the programme.  

“What I say to the Associate Minister of Education is do not take the food out of our children’s mouths, take it from somewhere else. This is so needed in the communities we serve and my school is an example of that.” 

Photo: AdobeStock by micromonkey

Leader of the opposition and former Education Minister Chris Hipkins is also defending Labour’s initative.  

“Kids who are not hungry are less likely to be acting up in the classroom – almost every teacher and school principal will tell you that. 

“The reality is when you’re dealing with providing food to kids there will be a bit of food wastage involved in that – kids can be picky eaters. But feeding kids who are not otherwise being fed is one of the best things we can do to help them not just with their educational journey, but in life.”  

Naomii Seah

Naomii Seah is a writer and journalist from Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. She enjoys crochet, painting, and a coffee or two at the beach. Her work can be found at The Spinoff, The Pantograph Punch, Stuff, and of course, School News NZ.
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