8 May 2024

School lunches: Principals disheartened by menu changes, lack of funding for staff

8:35 pm on 8 May 2024
Lunches provided at Jean Batten Primary School.

Foods such as fruit, muesli bars and sandwiches will replace hot meals from next year. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

The government has revamped its school lunches programme for years 7-13, which will do away with the likes of quinoa and hummus and return to basics.

Associate Education Minister David Seymour said the programme will get $478 million in this year's Budget to keep it going for the next two years.

Primary schools will keep the same model but from next year a no-frills model will be rolled out in intermediate and high schools saving $107m dollars a year.

News that free school lunches will continue was music to the ears of many parents of the 230,000 students who rely on free school lunches.

"For me that is good because if parents can't cook, then at least they are getting something to eat," said one parent.

"It is good news for us yeah, we are working parents, but sometimes we do two or three jobs and it becomes difficult or sometimes we just run out of time, you know."

For those in year seven and up a new alternative model will kick in from next year for intermediate and secondary schools.

While the focus will still be on providing nutritious food to students, the government said that in order to save $107m, foods such as quinoa and hummus would be out the window.

Lunch box items like fruit, muesli bars and sandwiches with a longer shelf life would be provided instead.

Changed menu 'disappointing'

Principal of Aorere College in Papatoetoe Lianne Webb said that was not enough for students who relied on lunch as their main or sometimes only meal of the day.

"That is really disappointing because the hot meals are a lot more enjoyable for the students than the sandwich, the sandwich is the least attractive option."

Of the 1650 students at the college two thirds take part in the lunch programme.

Aorere College principal Lianne Webb.

Lianne Webb: "The sandwich is the least attractive option." Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

Next year's scheme will be focused on reducing waste, however, Webb said at the end of the lunch break there was nothing to spare.

"We often have kids come at the end of the day asking if there's any food left over, so waste is not the issue."

Aorere College works with external provider DJ's Catering, who provide four staff to come in, set up and deliver the lunches.

But the onus will now be on schools themselves to manage the ordering, storage, preparation, and distribution of the food.

Webb said the college simply did not have that capacity.

"We don't have the facilities for doing that, we don't have the staff for that. We don't even have enough teachers, are we supposed to hire someone specially to do it without the funding to do so?"

Ōtāhuhu College principal Neil Watson echoed this concern.

"That comes at a cost in terms of staffing time, and we would have to look at how we manage that and how we do that in such a way which doesn't detract from the students in the classroom too."

Eighty-six percent of students at Ōtāhuhu College opt for the lunches scheme, provided by external company Kiwi Canteen.

Watson said there were no leftover lunches, but with the menu changing he was worried that might change.

"If you had a choice between a hot hamburger yeah and two muesli bars probably the hamburgers would have a higher uptake than two muesli bars."

Parents RNZ spoke to said that while a hot lunch was best, especially in winter, free kai and a full puku were still life changing.

"That's alright, as long as the kids are fed, I guess the sandwiches and the fruits are just as healthy as the hot meals," one person said.

"I think the hot meal was good, very good, but even sandwiches for kids that will be okay too, they will eat healthy," another parent said.

The finer details of the new Ka Ora Ka Ako programme for year 7-13 will be determined later this year with the assistance of an expert advisory group.

Educators will be hoping it will have the right outcomes for their tamariki.

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