Free school lunches bring 'huge' benefits to tamariki where provided - research

Where free lunches are provided, students have better concentration, behaviour, engagement, learning outcomes, and less waste from prepackaged food.
Where free lunches are provided, students have better concentration, behaviour, engagement, learning outcomes, and less waste from prepackaged food. Photo credit: Newshub.

A new study has found school lunches provide "huge" benefits to tamariki in schools where they're provided.

The study comes a day after ACT leader David Seymour hinted free school lunches could face the axe, as the Coalition tries to find savings in the public purse.

The previous Labour Government introduced Ka Ora, Ka Ako Healthy School Lunches in 2019, which now feeds about 230,000 students daily.

National thinks it's a "good" programme" while ACT claims it's "wasteful".

Seymour blasted on all sides

The research from Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa / Massey University found a range of benefits at Dannevirke High School since introducing free lunches three years ago.

Students had better concentration, behaviour, engagement and learning outcomes. Food insecurity also dropped, the study found.

There was also a big drop in waste, such as plastic packaging from snacks that used to be brought to school.

"Thoughtfully-planned, school meal programmes create environments that enable students to thrive," said researcher Assoc Prof Chrissy Severinsen.

The school's newly-converted wharekai has helped solidify student-student bonds, but also student-teacher bonds, said researcher Dr Angelique Reweti (Ngāpuhi).

"It has become a cornerstone of the school culture."

She said Dannevirke High School is a shining example of the potential of Ka Ora, Ka Ako.

Researcher Assoc Prof Bevan Erueti (Taranaki, Te Atihaunui-a-Pāpārangi, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) said they welcome discussion on how to improve implementation.

"But if we were to lose the programme, we risk losing substantial benefits to culture, health and education."

Dannevirke High principal Di Carter and teacher Logan Augustine echoed those concerns.

"Please do not let this go away, It's too good. It's for our students, for their learning. We need it," said Carter.

"Overall, it's a huge benefit for our students' hauora," said Augustine.

Arakura School Principal Seletute Mila told AM on Tuesday the Government should continue Ka Ora, Ka Ako.

"Our children didn't choose a life of poverty and so what do we do about that? Do we make our children pay for their parent's situation? Or do we just create a fair and equitable education system that allows all children to achieve their potential to succeed?" she said.

And Porirua College deputy principal John Topp told RNZ last week he's worried truancy will increase if the Government limits free school meals to only some students.

Meanwhile, a separate study released on Monday found food poverty was partly to blame for Aotearoa's poor performance in educational achievement.

That caused Health Coalition Aotearoa (HCA) to write to Seymour to request an urgent meeting over the issue.

'A huge waste of money'

Seymour said on Monday that Ka Ora, Ka Ako is "a huge waste of money and it should be gone".

"We will not be spending $350 million because we just can't afford it right now," he told Newstalk ZB.

He claimed 10,000 lunches go to waste daily, amounting to $25m of discarded kai. 

That's a wastage rate of about 4 percent.

A Budget document from July showed the Treasury was unsure if Ka Ora, Ka Ako represented value for money.