Free School Lunches gets A-rating, but David Seymour still warns funding cuts will be made

The Free School Lunches program has been given a big tick by Auckland University researchers, who've found evidence that free lunches do lead to better attendance.

It comes as Associate Education Minister David Seymour warns there's "no doubt" funding cuts will be made to the programme.

Lunchtime at Flat Bush Primary School is a sight to behold. Every day, food boxes are organised by students, passed out after playtime, and then after a quick karakia, they dig in, merrily listing the ingredients to us as we go round with the Newshub microphone.

"We got the bread!!! We got the berries!"

And ask the kids if the Ka Ora, Ka Ako or Free Lunch program is working - they've got a lot to say.

"It makes me full."

"It's helping the community over here."

They're younger than 11.

Researchers told Newshub on Monday the kid's enthusiasm is warranted.

"This is about reducing barriers to education," said Auckland University's Professor of population nutrition and global health Boyd Swinburn.

Prof Swinburn and his team crunched the numbers on 21 criteria determined by teachers, principals and Ministers to name but a few of the stakeholders.

Prof Swinburn's team found the program has exceeded expectations in more than half the criteria.

Among them was mental health.

"These free school lunches increased the mental health scores of kids in food poverty by 20 percent. That is a huge benefit," said Prof Swinburn.

The only criteria to receive a 'Poor' rating, was around the uncertainty of the programme's continuity, making it hard for teachers to plan ahead.

That's because the program is almost certainly going to get cuts in the upcoming Budget.

Associate Education Minister David Seymour said cuts are likely.

"The school lunch programme is nearly $340 million worth of funding that Labour did not set aside for any year after this year, 2024," Seymour told Newshub.

"There's no question; we can't keep spending the same amount of money. That doesn't mean you can't achieve the same result."

Seymour wanted to reiterate that under his watch, the programme was unlikely to be cut entirely.

"Our goal is to make sure the right kids are getting lunches for the best possible price to the taxpayer. And I think actually we will achieve more of the goals they say are important with a better-organised lunch programme at the end of the day."

ACT leader David Seymour.
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Newshub

But Prof Swinburn commented the problems with the programme mean more spending is necessary, not less.

"Of the kids who have food insecurity at home, 60 percent go to schools without the programme," Prof Swinburn said.

"This is why Health Coalition Aotearoa is pushing for an expansion of the programme, not a cutting of the programme."

And he's not alone.  

Independent political scientist Grant Duncan said while more research needs to be done, the existing data does paint the existing policy in a good light.

"The question should be why aren't we rolling this out further, rather than restricting it," he said.

Among Duncan's concerns are Seymour's responses to the data itself.

Today Seymour told Newshub: "I think it's important we recognise educational outcomes, those are the ones that the Ministry of Education tried to measure rigorously. And the evidence wasn't there."

Prof Swinburn told Newshub while evidence in the early stages of the programme was hard to come by, this most recent dataset shows the programme does impact educational outcomes.

"This recent deep dive into attendance showed for those kids who suffered food insecurity at home, this does statistically improve attendance," he said.

"It's to the tune of about three days a school year. So it's not the totality of the attendance issue - but at least it's a significant benefit."

Seymour has previously said 10,000 free school lunches are wasted each day, amounting to $25 million of wasted surplus lunches.

"Unfortunately, there is always food waste," Duncan told Newshub today.

"But I don't think this programme is any more guilty of any other way of delivering food to children."

Free School Lunches gets A-rating, but David Seymour still warns funding cuts will be made
Photo credit: Getty Images

Back at Flat Bush Primary, associate principal Emily Fernando told us any leftover food goes to the neighbouring kindergarten. Some waste goes to feed the school's chickens.

Speaking of the programme, Principal Banapa Avatea said "it's not news to anyone that if you're hungry it's harder to concentrate. If you can't concentrate, it's harder to learn".

"Our children are our whanau," he told Newshub.

"Our community is our home. It feels like you do as a mum or dad when you see your children at home. You feel a sense of contentment. You feel like you're doing something to make their day just a little bit better."

The kids at Flat Bush may be young, but they too seem to be backing an expansion of the programme.

"It's not fair. Every school should have heaps of lunches for everyone." 

It's feelings like this that may make Seymour's bid to cut part of the programme's funding a difficult sell.