PM Jacinda Ardern pours cold water on calls for free lunches at schools to tackle rising number of wagging kids

There are renewed calls for free lunches for all school pupils in a bid to tackle rising truancy numbers. 

Pressure is mounting on the Government to make its free Lunch in Schools programme available for everyone.

New research shows just how bad and widespread this issue has become, with 99 percent of decile 1-6 primary and secondary schools having students who go hungry on a regular basis. 

The research, commissioned by charity KidsCan, also shows that more than three-quarters of those schools have children who don't go to school because they don't have enough food. 

And it's taking a major toll on attendance; Ministry of Education data shows 7 percent of students are chronically absent and 30,000 students are attending less than 70 percent of school - that means missing at least three days of school every fortnight. 

It's gotten so bad it's now being called a truancy crisis. 

Is there anything better than a hot curry on a cold day? Certainly not if it's the only meal you'll have. But that's the reality for thousands of Kiwi kids.

"I think there is a huge need for it," Year 13 Pukekohe High School student Jasmine Neiderberger told Newshub.

In the few months Pukekohe High's Year 13 pupils have been running the KidsCan lunch programme, trying to change the stigma around needing a free feed has been the hardest thing. 

"There definitely is [a stigma]," says student Celeste Nyatsanza. "You get mocked for being poor and there's almost like a shame in trying to get help like most other things. We're trying to get rid of that." 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, more students have been coming to school with nothing to eat - and as a direct result, the number of students wagging has gone up.

"One of the number one reasons why students leave school grounds are to go to a local dairy or a local shop to buy food - so by removing that as motivation, we're stopping our students going off-site at all," explains Pukekohe High deputy principal Gerard Tindling.

That's echoed by schools around the country.

"It's been a life-changer for our children. but it's also been a game-changer for us as a school as well," says Western Heights Primary School's Brett Griffin.  

KidsCan commissioned a report into just how bad the problem of food insecurity is for students. The results - 99 percent of all schools have kids who go hungry - shocked its founder.

"I had a moment there when I read the research where I thought this is insurmountable," said Julie Chapman. "The issue is too big, but then I quickly snapped out of it and then remembered we're here as an organisation for those children."

KidsCan currently feeds 40,000 kids every day, and the Government's lunch programme caters to about 1000 schools - around 25 percent of students. But there are growing calls to extend that to all students, at all schools.

"I think it's something we should aim for; other countries do it, why wouldn't we? the benefits are incalculable," said Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. 

Child Poverty Reduction Minister Jacinda Ardern said providing school lunches for every child is "quite a costly programme to roll out".

"I think [it's] worth every dollar for what we're doing now, but I do have to ask myself the question whether or not that is the next step for us when we're looking to try and target where our need is." 

But you ask anyone inside the school system - they'll say the need is right here, right now.