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Photo: Libelle.
Photo: Libelle.

KaiMarch 6, 2024

Who gets free school lunches, what are they eating, and what’s the cost?

Photo: Libelle.
Photo: Libelle.

The free school lunch programme is under review, with long-time opponent David Seymour in charge of cutting running costs. He’s said the programme is wasteful – but others are calling it a game changer. So how does it all work?

New Zealand’s free school lunch programme, Ka Ora, Ka Ako – Healthy School Lunches, was launched by the Labour government in 2019 with the aim of reducing food insecurity, and “putting students in a good place to learn”. Initially a two-year initiative for primary and intermediate students, it was expanded to secondary schools in February 2020. Currently almost 230,000 students from over a thousand schools and kura get a free lunch every school day through the programme. That’s around a million lunches every week. 

While in opposition, the Act Party campaigned on abolishing the programme, with leader David Seymour calling Ka Ora, Ka Ako “wasteful”, “unaffordable”, and a “marketing stunt”. National, meanwhile, last year said it supported the programme, but promised to make it more efficient should it get voted into parliament. 

Now we have a National-Act-NZ First coalition government and Seymour, as associate minister of education, has been put in charge of the free school lunch programme, which is under review. “I’ve said as Act it’s a huge waste of money and it should be gone,” he said on Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking Breakfast on Monday, but acknowledged that the different parties in the coalition may want different things, and his job was to find a proposal that cabinet could agree on. “It certainly can’t carry on being $350 million odd a year with almost no evidence that it works,” Seymour added. Later on RNZ’s Checkpoint, he said he was looking to cut the programme’s budget by 30-50%. “It has to be better targeted, it has to deliver more efficiently,” he said, and “it needs to achieve things that relate to education.” 

The prime minister, meanwhile, said at Monday’s post-cabinet press conference that the government supported the programme, but were “very determined to make sure that we can make it more efficient, more effective and make sure there’s less waste”.

So how does the programme currently work, and is it doing its job?

Who gets a free lunch?

Eligibility is mostly dependent on a school’s rating on the Equity Index, which last year replaced the decile system. Schools in the top 25% of the index, which indicates the greatest socioeconomic barriers faced, are eligible. Currently 1,023 schools with 229,811 students on their rolls are taking part. Students are not assessed individually because this could cause stigma, discourage families from taking part, and add complexity and cost to the programme, according to the programme’s website.

Healthy lunches in-situ (Photo: Libelle)

Where do the lunches come from?

It’s up to each school. Food can be made on site (following proper hygiene and employment practices – staff must be paid at least $26 per hour) or schools can choose from a panel of suppliers approved by the Ministry of Education. While the school communicates with suppliers on numbers, the menu and delivery times, the suppliers are paid directly by the ministry.

What’s on the menu?

The nutritional standards are set high: that means nothing deep-fried, no lollies or chocolate, no juice, no chicken skin, no flavoured milk, no streak of fat on the meat, and ideally, no white bread and only wholegrain pasta and rice – though in 2021, some parents at a South Auckland school reported an abundance of pizza bread and muffins. There is no menu set by the ministry but it says typical items are wraps, salads, soups and hot lunches. Meals must meet set weight requirements for vegetables, protein, grains and starchy vegetables.

Some of Libelle’s lunch options (Photo: Libelle)

Libelle, one of the largest providers of the government’s lunch scheme, caters to 28,300 students from more than 150 schools. Its menu changes each week, but includes the likes of pasta bolognese, ham sandwiches, butter chicken curry, cheeseburger-inspired wraps, summery chicken pasta and chilli con carne.

How much does it cost?

The ministry sets a strict budget for each lunch, which reflects their size – older students get larger servings. For lunches made at the schools, the maximum budgets are $5.56 per lunch for years 0-3, $6.52 for years 4-8 and $8.29 for years 9-13. For lunches made by suppliers, it’s $5.78 for years 0-3, $6.77 for years 4-8, and $8.62 for years 9-13. That includes food, packaging and delivery, but excludes GST.

In the 2023 budget, Labour committed $323.4m to fund the programme until the end of December 2024, and during the election campaign leader Chris Hipkins promised to continue funding it beyond this should Labour be voted back in. It wasn’t.

Does food go to waste?

In Monday’s radio interview, Seymour said a quarter of the lunches were wasted, but it’s unclear where he got this figure. A report from Treasury last year found as many as 10,000 lunches, or 12% of the 220,000 lunches provided to 995 schools, were left over every day. Education minister at the time Jan Tinetti said the surplus was due to student absences, while National and Act spokespeople pinned it on lunches being sent to entire school rolls rather than targeting students most in need. News reports found instances of kids not eating the free lunches because they found them gross, stale, soggy, dry and tasting yuck”.

Tinetti said schools decided what to do with the leftover lunches, and a Ministry of Education survey showed 61% were taken home by students and 21% were given to the community. At various schools across the country, principals have told media that leftovers go to foodbanks, pātaka kai and similar community organisations, or are taken home by students and staff

A sample of what South Auckland free lunch provider Kainui Brunch Shack offered students in 2021 (Photo: Justin Latif)

Has the programme been successful?

Seymour has claimed there’s no evidence the programme works, but that depends on what you’re measuring. 

Initial evaluations in 2020 of schools in Hawke’s Bay/Tairāwhiti, Bay of Plenty/Waiariki and Otago/Southland found that students had access to and ate better food because of the programme, and that the mental wellbeing of the most disadvantaged kids improved. 

A report released in 2022 that surveyed more than 10,000 high school students found that those receiving free lunches were happier and healthier, but there wasn’t a significant change in their attendance or achievement.

A 2023 report said that Ka Ora, Ka Ako contributed to the hauora and wellbeing of ākonga Māori and helped foster community, food security and better attendance for some students, as well as providing jobs.

In July last year, a report from the Treasury was uncertain whether Ka Ora, Ka Ako was good value for money, even though it contributed to happier and healthier students. Because there had been no improvement in attendance and little benefit for Māori students, it recommended prioritising things that directly supported achievement, like reading and maths programmes.

Massey University looked at Dannevirke High School in Wharekai as a case study and found that learning, behaviour and engagement improved. Research team member Chrissy Severinsen said that “when thoughtfully planned, school meal programmes create environments that enable students to thrive”.

On Monday, new research showed that students in food poverty were up to four years behind even after accounting for socioeconomic deprivation, and that Ka Ako, Ka Ora wasn’t reaching enough students. 

What do the schools reckon? 

In 2021, Māngere Central School principal Jacqualene Maindonald told The Spinoff the programme had reduced absenteeism and resulted in kids being more engaged and focused.

Last year, Liz Weir, principal of Christchurch’s Rawhiti School, told The Press that children had been “more settled” and that having the lunches “promotes their overall wellbeing and certainly enhances their ability to focus and learn in school”. She wanted to see the programme at double the number of schools.

Earlier this year, principals at a number of schools across the Wellington region praised the programme in a story in The Post, saying it resulted in happier and more engaged students, was a “game changer” and had “made a huge difference”.

Porirua College principal Ragne Maxwell told RNZ on Tuesday that the free lunches were the most successful education initiative she’d ever seen rolled out. “It’s making a real difference for young people and their ability to learn, attend school and succeed with their work.” To eliminate wasteful spending, she suggested the government equip schools to make the lunches themselves, cutting out the profit margins of suppliers.

What about parents?

In 2021, two Māngere-based mothers spoken to by The Spinoff had concerns about the menu at their children’s school, and wanted to be able to send their own lunches on some days. Neither believed providing lunches to all students at a school was necessary, and they worried that the scheme could impact the responsibility of parents, and “create more dependency and a sense of entitlement”.

That same year another mother told Newshub she was relieved not to have to worry about making lunches: “We’re really grateful, actually.” She said there was a social aspect to the lunches too. “Everyone’s eating the same lunch, everyone gets the opportunity to have lunch – so there’s no judgement there. It’s yummy and she gets to try different things.”

Last year, a Manurewa mother who worked at a school told RNZ that the lunches were a blessing, and “you can see the weight lift when they [parents] see the lunch provided”.

The school lunch programme has provided jobs in school communities (Photo: Libelle)

What’s going to happen next?

It’s unlikely the programme will be scrapped entirely, with Seymour telling Checkpoint “we’re going to keep some form of the programme, but it has to be better targeted, it has to deliver more efficiently”. He said he wanted to see tangible results in “things that relate to education… like getting kids to show up, getting kids to concentrate, ultimately getting kids to achieve”.

At his post-cabinet briefing on Monday, Luxon said changes to the programme will “not necessarily” mean fewer kids or schools will receive the lunches. “We want to make sure that it’s been effective,” he said. Since the programme had grown and funding it was a “big commitment”, Luxon said he wanted to “make sure we’re getting a return on it”.

To what extent funding for Ka Ako, Ka Ora is cut, and at least some details of what a stripped-back version might look like, is likely to be revealed on budget day, May 30. 

Keep going!