Chris Hipkins says food wastage from free school lunches inevitable but programme 'best thing' for Kiwi kids in need

Labour leader Chris Hipkins says food wastage from the free school lunches programme is a reality of feeding kids as the Coalition Government looks at cutting up to half its funding. 

The ex-Prime Minister has joined calls to keep funding in place, saying feeding children in need is one of the best things the country can do for their education. 

It comes as Education Ministry figures on Tuesday showed New Zealand school stand-down rates were at the highest in more than 20 years. The data from 2022 showed schools stood down one in every 30 students, with physical assaults accounting for 29 percent of cases. 

Appearing on AM on Wednesday, Hipkins, a former education minister, responded to questions about whether his Labour Government tried to combat these statistics. He said the money Labour put into extra learning support for children with more intensive learning needs alongside the introduction of Ka Ora, Ka Ako Healthy School Lunches Programme makes a difference. 

"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," Hipkins said. 

He added there is now an "axe hanging over" free school lunches now ACT leader David Seymour was put in charge of it. 

Seymour, who is the Associate Education Minister, is working to put together a proposition on the fate of the programme for Cabinet that coalition partners could agree on. 

He believes the programme, which costs $325 million each year, is "a huge waste of money and it should be gone". While no decisions have been made yet, Seymour told RNZ on Monday he was looking to cut its funding by up to half. 

Seymour said 10,000 lunches were wasted each day, citing a Treasury report of the programme from 2023 that found around 12 percent of the lunches were wasted. However, Hipkins hit back at that claim saying the most recent estimates show wastage was down to six percent. 

"As a parent who makes the school lunch box on a regular basis for my own children, if the school lunch box comes back with 94 percent of the food eaten that's a pretty good day," Hipkins said. 

"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." 

The programme was introduced by Labour in 2019 and provides lunches to about 235,000 students who are in need of the greatest support.