30 May 2024

Official admits new school lunch model unlikely to be as nutritious due to cost

3:05 pm on 30 May 2024
Chris Hipkins is visiting the Post Office Hotel in Pahiatua. They make free school lunches for approx 900 students in the area. Hipkins is helping make burgers which will be delivered to schools later.

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

A Ministry of Education official has admitted the alternative model for the government's free school lunch programme is unlikely to be as nutritious as the previous programme, RNZ understands.

The comments came in a webinar hui between the Ministry of Education and intermediate and high school principals, earlier this month.

Principal Sheree Garton, from Levin Intermediate School, asked a question about protein and carbohydrates required in the new meals - and was told the meals would not have the same nutrition standards and would be very unlikely to meet the same nutritional quality as the previous meals because of the cost - though nutrition would be a factor in looking for a new major supplier.

The budget changes to the Ka ora, Ka ako free school lunch programme were announced in early May, with savings of $107 million made by changing the food provided in intermediate and high schools, to one major provider offering items such as sandwiches, fruit, and heat and eat items.

The full programme - which allowed schools to offer a variety of meals through their choice of internal and external suppliers - cost $323m for one year. This will still be offered for primary schools.

Garton told RNZ said she was "surprised and disappointed" to hear the meals would not be required to be as nutritious.

"That's the hardest thing to take. How come we don't value our kids enough to give them a quality meal? Why are we stooping to that in New Zealand."

She said her intermediate school with over 300 kids had worked really hard to develop healthy eating habits. She said they bought produce from local sources - offering things such as wholemeal wraps, wholemeal burgers and macaroni and cheese packed with cauliflower.

These meals were then analysed by nutritionists who looked at quantities of protein and fat, she said.

"Levin has one of the highest amounts of takeaway bars per person in New Zealand - so we've got huge amounts of takeaway places but we've actually changed the way the kids view those things, so they can make a healthy pizza if that's what they want for dinner - they can make chow mein, they can do some of these things in their homes without having these high fat diets."

But Associate Education Minister David Seymour maintained the lunches would still be "nutritious and satisfying", and that the new model would save taxpayers' money.

"The ministry, with advice from an expert advisory group of commercial and not-for-profit experts in procurement, logistics and contracting, child welfare and nutrition are assisting officials to ensure children will receive food that is nutritious and satisfying.

"The government is determined to provide better public services while costing taxpayers less. I'm confident that by embracing innovation and commercial expertise we'll be able to deliver a school lunches programme that is nutritious and saves $107 million each year."

The ministry is starting the process of looking for a major new supplier who will provide the intermediate and school lunches. Lunches for intermediate and high school students are reducing in price from between $6.77-$8.62 per child to $3 per child.

Factors being considered for the new supplier includes the cost of products the company supplies, the variety of the ingredients on offer, nutrition, and dietary requirements.

The schools will not receive these funds themselves but will be ordering ingredients through an online portal, at no charge to them, a budget document says.

Garton said she was also concerned how she would fund cooking facilities and staff to prepare and distribute the lunches to the students.

RNZ understands there is currently no specific funding set aside for how schools will prepare of distribute the lunches - though the ministry has said it is looking into what support it could provide.

Changes to the ministry's school lunch team

Decision documents for the Ministry of Education's proposed job cuts, which RNZ has seen, shows an intention to move the school lunch team out of the Ministry of Education. It suggests functions for food and nutrition could move into the Ministry of Health, Te Whatu Ora, and Ministry for Primary Industries in the future.

The documents also confirm nineteen roles out of 52 will be cut in the special projects team - the team which works on school lunches and free period products - including seven nutritionist roles.

The ministry decided to keep on a senior nutritionist advisory role in the team following the consultation period, and a number of others including supplier partnership roles, lead advisory roles, assurance and project co-ordinator roles.

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