30 Aug 2019

Free lunches for kids scheme not bold enough - ActionStation

11:21 am on 30 August 2019

A community action group says while giving children free lunches is a good start, the government needs to implement the recommendations made by its Welfare Expert Advisory Group.

An empty primary school classroom.

Photo: 123rf

Yesterday the government announced a programme to serve a daily free lunch in 30 schools from the first term of next year, and 120 schools the following year, at a cost of about $45 million.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: "You simply can't learn distracted by an empty stomach."

"The lunch in schools programme is another initiative that will contribute to the government's pledge to reduce the impacts of poverty on children and make New Zealand the best place in the world to be a child," she said.

However Laura O'Connell Rapira, director of the social justice group ActionStation, told Morning Report while it's a really good start, it's not bold enough.

"I'm all for kai for kids, I think it's really important to make sure that all of our kids in New Zealand have a full belly so they can learn while they're at school but the truth is, in New Zealand we've had a long period of low wages, eroded benefits, high housing costs and rising food prices and at the same time people in government have underinvested in key services that would actually help low-income families."

Income support and public housing are among these key services, she said.

Ms O'Connell Rapira said the government needs to implement the recommendations made by its own Welfare Expert Advisory Group like raising benefits.

"Unless we are willing to make sure parents aren't in poverty, we are going to see children in poverty."

Most families in poverty have a working parent, and have housing costs that take up over half of their income, she said.

We need both universal income support and universal services, she said, to make sure everyone is well and cared for.

The initiative will first start with a pilot programme but Ms O'Connell Rapira said she is unsure why this is necessary.

"The research is pretty clear from around the world around the need for children to be well-fed in order to focus in schools to unlock opportunities, to escape the constraints of poverty."

Family First president Bob McCoskrie told Morning Report the new government policy to give hungry kids a free lunch rewards bad parenting.

"From what I can see, the problem is either that children are coming to school, either because their parents are bad or rotten or too lazy to give the children food, perhaps they're prioritising their spending elsewhere or there's a genuine need of a family who simple can't afford it."

He said the solution is to work with the family in both of these cases.