8 May 2024

Free school lunches: Year 7 students and above to shift to alternative model

1:35 pm on 8 May 2024

Primary students already benefiting from free school lunches will continue to do so in the same way for the next two-and-a-half years, while older students will shift to an alternative model.

Associate education minister David Seymour has announced the government has found about $107 million a year in savings in the current Ka Ora, Ka Ako programme, some of which will be used to provide free morning tea and lunches to pre-schoolers.

Asked to explain how the Coalition reached $107m in savings, a spokesperson for Seymour said Labour had budgeted $323m for the school year, but the Ministry of Education forecasted the actual cost would be $342m due to food inflation and population growth.

Under the Coalition's revised progamme it will cost $234.8 million for the 2025 school year - a saving of $107m on what the previous government's programme was estimated to cost.

Of those savings, $4m will be repurposed to provide meals for some early childhood centres.

Until the end of this year, the school lunches programme will remain as it is for the 235,000 students in more than 1000 schools receiving it.

A new interim delivery model would kick in next year, which has temporary funding for two years, to allow time for a full redesign of the school lunch programme before any more money was dedicated.

ACT party leader David Seymour

Associate Education Minister David Seymour says the changes will "significantly reduce the cost of the programme". Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

From February, up to 10,000 pre-schoolers in low-equity, not-for-profit, community-based early childhood centres would be eligible for a free morning tea and lunch five days a week at a cost of $4m.

"The first 1000 days are key to a child's development. I am proud this government can innovate to help even more children who need it," Seymour said.

"We are delivering on our commitment to treat taxpayers' money with respect."

While primary school aged students will continue from February to receive the same lunches prepared on site or delivered daily, an alternative provision model will begin for students in year 7 and above.

That programme will be bulk purchased by the government and delivered to schools, which Seymour said would "significantly reduce the cost of the programme".

"Students will receive nutritious food that they want to eat. It will be made up of the sorts of food items thousands of mums and dads put into lunch boxes every day for their kids - forget quinoa, couscous, and hummus, it will be more like sandwiches and fruit," Seymour said.

When asked about food items like sushi for lunches, he said,"If you don't get that sushi's woke, then I don't know how to wake you up, but the key message here is that we are introducing the kinds of foods that are put in the lunchboxes of children, the other 75 percent of kids, who rely on their parents to send their lunch".

But when questioned by a reporter about Japanese children and what is normal for them to eat, Seymour said schools would still have the ability to choose what food they ordered and decide how many lunches their school needed.

Libelle preps 25,000 meals a day for school children around the country for the Ka Ora, Ka Ako programme.

Libelle - a school food service - preps 25,000 meals a day for students around the country for the Ka Ora, Ka Ako programme. Photo: RNZ / Tom Taylor

Existing suppliers for the Ka Ora, Ka Ako programme will also be eligible to provide food for older year groups, and families who wanted to make their own lunches for their children will be able to.

An advisory group, which will have representatives from KidsCan, The Heart Foundation, Save The Children and Ryman Healthcare, will be set up by the government this year to work out the logistics and contracting for the new programmes, including nutritional value in the meals provided.

Seymour said that the government were budgeting for $3 per lunch.

"At the moment KidsCan budget $2. If you look at what big catering companies are able to to, they actually manage to do - I was sceptical myself - but they actually manage to provide very nutritious food at very low prices."

Those composite schools that have a mixture of students from years 0 to 13 will need to operate a dual model in 2025 and 2026, whereby younger students receive the current lunch in schools programme and those in years 7 and above will get the alternative model.

Budget 2024 provides $478m of interim funding for the free lunches programme for the next two years.

"Through innovation and embracing commercial expertise, we're delivering a better programme, saving taxpayers approximately $107 million per annum compared to how Labour funded it," Seymour said.

"The previous government conditioned people to believe that the only way to show your love as a government is to spend more money and employ more people. We think getting improved outcomes for all New Zealanders is better and those things are not always connected."

Students at schools receiving taxpayer-funded lunches will also continue to access the Kickstart Breakfast and Fruit in Schools programmes.

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