Health experts call for free school lunches to be extended to more children

Henry Hill School children tucking into a free school lunch provided through the Ka Ora, Ka Ako Healthy School Lunches Programme.
Henry Hill School children tucking into a free school lunch provided through the Ka Ora, Ka Ako Healthy School Lunches Programme. Photo credit: Supplied / Ministry of Education

By John Gerritsen for RNZ

A group of health experts is urging the government to expand its free lunch scheme to more schools.

Health Coalition Aotearoa said more children than ever needed the scheme because of the cost of living crisis, and in Auckland the floods had added to the pressure on some families.

Coalition co-chairperson Boyd Swinburn said Ka Ora Ka Ako the Ministry of Education's Healthy School Lunches Programme was restricted to schools that had the 25 percent of students with the highest socio-economic need and it should be at least doubled to the next 25 percent.

Professor Swinburn said he had been studying the effect of Ka Ora Ka Ako in schools in the Hawke's Bay and it had benefits for education and health and even for local employment and food security.

"There's a heck of a lot of positive spinoffs from this programme," he said.

"For the kids themselves, I mean we're still in the middle of a childhood obesity epidemic for which there's been virtually no interventions apart from this so we desperately need action on childhood obesity, but there's a whole lot of other spinoffs as well for health including oral health and also mental health."

Swinburn said the research also found that a lot of children who would benefit from Ka Ora Ka Ako were missing out.

"In the mid-decile schools there are a heck of a lot of kids who are still facing food hardship, food insecurity at home and so I think it definitely needs to be spread to those schools, where they still have a very high percentage of kids who are facing food insecurity at home."

Nearly 1000 schools, with 250,000 students, were in the scheme this year.

University of Auckland research fellow Victoria Egli, who was also a Health Coalition food expert, said there was overwhelming support for Ka Ora Ka Ako in the schools that received it.

But she said more schools needed it.

"At the moment only 25 percent of children receive lunch at school and what it does is it misses a lot of children who are still living in food insecure households. So children can be food insecure outside of that 25 percent and we're missing those kids," she said.

Dr Egli said ideally the programme should be expanded to all schools.

"Expanding the Ka Ora Ka Ako programme to all kids in all schools will, most importantly, ensure that kids going to school in Aotearoa are fuelled on healthy, nutritious food," she said.

Māori health organisation Hāpai te Hauora chief executive Selah Hart said it ran a brief online survey of families after Auckland's floods and found high demand for food.

"Food was the number one priority," she said.

"Food security or insecurity is so high right now. It was already high prior to the floods."

Hart said the government should expand its lunch scheme, and after three years of dealing with the pandemic there were plenty of organisations that could help it do that quickly.

"As a small Māori health provider across a wider network of Auckland Māori health providers we can mobilise kai packs with our eyes closed. I know providers right across Auckland, right here right now, that are delivering hundred and hundreds of kai packs out to families. So there are ways and means to do it," she said.

Secondary Principals' Association president Vaughan Couillault said the scheme was valuable and he was sure some schools on the cusp of eligibility would like to be included.

"I am absolutely certain there are people that are just the other side of that funding line that would like that line moved.

"From my experience the Ka Ora Ka Ako Healthy School Lunches Programme makes a real difference on the ground, so I can understand why they're hungry for it," he said.

But Couillault said extending the scheme to all schools would result in valuable funding for disadvantage being used to feed children who were not disadvantaged and he was not sure that principals would support that.