A South Taranaki trust that feeds vulnerable children has been forced to apologise after locals accused it of racial profiling when recruiting models for its advertising campaign.
The Kai Kitchen in Hawera has been criticised after it said it wanted a child model with dark features to illustrate poverty.
On Monday, it posted online that it needed photos for its new website that show poverty, and specified it preferred a boy with dark hair and brown eyes, uncut hair and bare feet.
The Facebook post quickly stirred outrage among locals who suggested they were wanting a Māori model.
Te Rūnanga o Ngati Ruanui chief executive Debbie Ngarewa-Packer complained about it on her Facebook page that night.
"To see someone advertising to design a website using misery of child circumstances, and seemingly Māori profiled children, is off key," she said.
"It felt like they were being exploited for circumstances that shouldn't be."
Her post earned support from a number of locals who labelled it racial profiling, and questioned why the trust was not looking for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, child for the photos.
The Kai Kitchen then changed the advertisement to say they wanted a boy with dark features so he could pass as the brother of a young pākehā girl, whom they had already secured as a model.
But that post was quickly pulled down and an apology was issued.
Ms Ngarewa-Packer said the ordeal had damaged The Kai Kitchen's reputation, and she hoped that the public outcry taught them a lesson.
"You got to ask yourself, what was in your head, why you think it is okay to use the misery of a child's circumstance to promote a new website? And two, to be so specific about the profiling of that child."
The Kai Kitchen Trust said things had been blown out of proportion and they had been on damage control mode.
Board member Tane Wiremu Houston rejected that they were racial profiling, and said they wanted the two models to look like siblings.
"Our young girl had brown hair, brown eyes, so we thought it a natural fit that the second child we looked for had the same characteristics... We were definitely not looking for a Māori boy," he said.
Yesterday, the trust delivered about 80 lunches to school children in South Taranaki.
Mr Houston said they wanted to show vulnerable children on their new website to tug at the heart strings of donors and get more support, in the same way World Vision and Kids Can do.
"There has been a misunderstanding between us and the public. We understand that people are up in arms about what it was perceived what we had said.
"Our statement to the public is really just a huge and sincere apology."
He said the trust had taken on board the criticisms of the public and will be reviewing its marketing campaign.