10 Apr 2024

Students petition Parliament to keep free school lunches funding

10:02 pm on 10 April 2024
School children at Parliament to urge the government not to make any cuts or changes to the free school lunches programme.

School children at Parliament to urge the government not to make any cuts or changes to the free school lunches programme. Photo: RNZ / Giles Dexter

Students from six schools in the Wellington area have visited Parliament to urge the government not to make any cuts or changes to the free school lunches programme.

Associate education minister David Seymour has said the government would continue the programme, but in a way which provided maximum benefit to the students who needed it the most while providing value for money.

Students from Taita College, Bishop Viard College, Porirua College, Naenae College, Arakura School, and Ngāti Toa School met with MPs from Labour, the Greens, and Te Pāti Māori to discuss the Ka Ako Ka Ora programme, and share some lunch with them.

Over sushi and fresh fruit in the Beehive's function room, the students told the MPs the programme had improved attendance, and took burdens off students, parents, and teachers.

"It also saves parents from buying kids' lunch the day before school, because there's a cost of living inflation in New Zealand," Henry Tanuvasa from Bishop Viard College said.

Children sharing kai with Labour Party leader Chris Hipkins.

Children sharing kai with Labour Party leader Chris Hipkins. Photo: RNZ / Giles Dexter

Malachi Iafeta, a year 10 student at Taita College, said the meals had improved student wellbeing and attendance.

"Students are a bit more active during class, they're healthier. I know some students who didn't come to school, because they didn't want to, and the food has really given them reason, and has actually made them study," he said.

"Before, we came to school with just pies, chips, whatever, but now we have healthy stuff. Nutrients, proteins, that balance it out for us."

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer thanked the students for coming to Parliament.

"The most important part is when our puku, and our hinengaro, our wairua, our spiritual wellbeing is in check, then we can go to school and learn and reach our true potential," she told the students.

The students were joined by Health Coalition Aotearoa, which presented a petition to Labour's education spokesperson Jan Tinetti.

Health Coalition Aotearoa co-chairperson Professor Lisa te Morenga said it made no sense for the government to set attendance targets while potentially making cuts to a programme which had improved attendance.

"If you're really committed to improving attendance, then remove the barriers to kids being able to attend school," she said.

"There are many families out there who cannot afford always to put food on the table, or if they do put food on the table it might be bread and butter. Kids can't thrive on bread and butter either."

Lisa te Morenga hands the school lunches petition to Jan Tinetti.

Lisa te Morenga hands the petition to Jan Tinetti. Photo: RNZ / Giles Dexter

Labour has a petition of its own, urging the government to commit to fully funding the programme.

"When people say this isn't impacting attendance, it's being very selective. The schools will tell you a different story," Tinetti said.

Labour leader Chris Hipkins said the only two ways to continue the programme while making savings were to cut the number of students getting it, or to reduce the quality of the food.

"Either in the way the food is prepared, i.e. you move to a mass-production model where it's moved offsite and it will lose some of the healthy nature, or you reduce the number of kids. Those are really the only two ways you could cut the costs."

Seymour, however, said it was impossible to speculate on what any changes would be, as they were still going through the cabinet process.

He pointed the finger at the previous government for failing to fund the programme beyond this year, leaving it as a fiscal cliff.

"Labour didn't put any money aside. If we don't put money aside in this Budget there won't be any school lunch programme, so yes we will have to put it in the Budget," he said.

Seymour said the evidence showed a "fractional" increase in attendance, and it would cost potentially billions of dollars to meet the government's attendance goals solely through funding lunches.

"Spending money is not actually a goal in itself, our challenge will be to deliver the results that everybody wants, while spending less money."

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