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graph paper with bananas, coloured pencils, a plate and coins
What do kids get, and, more importantly, what do they eat? (Image: Shanti Mathias)

KaiMay 13, 2024

Can you really provide meals for teens for $3 a pop? And will they eat it?

graph paper with bananas, coloured pencils, a plate and coins
What do kids get, and, more importantly, what do they eat? (Image: Shanti Mathias)

The revamped school lunch programme is budgeting $3 per lunch, rather than the current $8. But is it really so simple to cut costs? Shanti Mathias investigates. 

Last week, associate education minister and Act Party leader David Seymour announced the government’s revamped school lunch programme, which will provide food to thousands of children in schools at a reduced cost. Instead of budgeting $8 per lunch, as the current Ka Ora, Ka Ako programme instituted under the previous Labour government does, Seymour announced a new figure: $3 per lunch. That’s based partially on information provided to the government by KidsCan, the charity focused on practical items for children experiencing poverty, with some extra added for inflation and meal quality. 

But that number isn’t so simple. In an interview on RNZ last night, KidsCan CEO Julie Chapman explained that the charity has calculated that the meals it provides to early childhood education centres – which cater to under-fives – are $2 each. It provides meals for about 5,800 kids a day, and there is a long waitlist. 

However, this food is provided more as “meal kits”, in ingredient form – early childhood centre staff have to actually prepare the meals, so the $2 figure doesn’t take into account the labour of making the food. Furthermore, because these meals are for pre-schoolers, they are far smaller than what is required for older, bigger kids. And because KidsCan is a charity, it doesn’t need to make a profit, while most commercial food suppliers do.

Staff at Libelle, one of the largest providers for the Ka Ora, Ka Ako programme, preparing lunches

KidsCan does also provide food to schools; for the most part, this is not lunches, but breakfasts and snacks, like cereal, yoghurt, nuts and One Square Meal bars. The charity does provide predominantly shelf-stable (ie non-refrigerated) heat-and-eat meals to 66 schools that aren’t part of the school lunch programme (out of 890 schools connected to KidsCan around the country), which Chapman estimated cost between $1.90 to $2.20 per student.

Chapman explained that KidsCan’s offering is designed to complement what the Ministry of Health’s fruit in schools programme, MSD’s breakfast programme and the government’s school lunches programme offer. The new school lunches system “should be an opportunity to think, what part does everyone have to play in getting the best outcome and nutritional value to the kids who need it most?” 

Sandwiches for everyone

When thinking about what kind of food to provide to kids in need, there are other factors to consider, too, and it’s not just the risible categorisation of food by wokeness. One of the ways the new programme proposed by the government is cutting $107m from the programme is by changing the kind of food delivered, focusing on muesli bars, fruit and sandwiches – items with a longer shelf life that don’t need to be heated. Principals interviewed by RNZ said they were disappointed. “Sandwiches are the least attractive option,” said Liane Webb, principal of Aorere College in Papatoetoe, South Auckland. Hot food is more popular. 

The kind of food that works at one school might not be the same as what works elsewhere, says Nitha Palakshappa, professor of marketing and sustainability at Massey who co-authored a recent research project about how school lunches are part of Aotearoa’s broader food system and food culture. “Lots of kids like mac and cheese and pizza,” she says. “However, ethnic diversity means that we saw a big difference across the country: interviewing in the Bay of Plenty we saw different food preferences to South Auckland.” To her, it’s important that school lunches help build children’s relationships with food: to see kai as part of wellbeing and nurture. “We feed kids [at school] to provide them with an environment where they can feel better, and where they can learn,” she says. 

This helps reduce waste, which can be a problem with school lunch programmes – although the principals RNZ talked to who already participated in the Ka Ora, Ka Ako programme said there were rarely leftovers, as students who needed food could come and take what remained to eat at home.

Photo: Justin Latif

That’s certainly what Marie Paterson has observed. She’s the general manager of Kura Kai, an organisation that provides schools with chest freezers, and connects with volunteers in the community who make meals and freeze them in suitable packaging. The food is then available for schools to distribute as needed; to take some extra meals home when a whānau is experiencing a bereavement or to heat for themselves if there’s not enough at home. “We have all different cultures coming in – volunteers make island food, Indian food, different dietary requirements, there’s no one size fits all.” On its website, Kura Kai suggests meals like lasagne, casseroles, fried rice and chop suey as ideal for volunteers to cook. 

Kura Kai isn’t part of the official school lunch programme, and because its meals are cooked by volunteers, Paterson says there’s no easy way to estimate how much each one costs. There’s some funding from Lottery Grants and grocery vouchers from Foodstuffs, but much of the costs come out of people’s pockets. “We can’t partner with any more schools at the moment, we’re out of capacity,” Paterson says. 

Sustenance for life beyond lunch

To help kids connect more to the food they eat, the charity has recently started a rangatahi programme, where children cook nutritious meals for each other. Some schools supply those meals to their own freezers, or other schools donate the food to centres already involved in the programme. “Our key focus is making it grassroots, with limited red tape. We want to keep kids in education, and if kai helps ease that burden, it’s worthwhile to do,” Paterson says. 

Chief children’s commissioner Claire Achmad agrees that while school lunches are needed, their future should be determined in conjunction with schools. “I am glad to see both the public and government support for school lunches. Independent evaluations of the current Ka Ora, Ka Ako programme, together with broader evidence, shows that nutritious school meals effectively boost children’s physical and mental health and help to address food insecurity,” Achmad said in a press release.

“But I am concerned that by changing the way it will be delivered in intermediate and secondary schools, it’s possible that much of the benefit for growing teenagers will be lost. This is a critical developmental period for all children and it’s important they have access to nutritious, healthy food that they want to eat.

Photo: Getty Images

What do kids actually eat? 

Kirsty Trevor is involved with the Kura Kai programme at Tauhara College, a school in Taupō. Canned soup, cereal and milk, fruit and scroggin from KidsCan are popular, she says. “These all go, every term. Kids love having foods they can grab and go, and on cold winter days they enjoy being able to get cups of hot soup as well.” For the Kura Kai meals, they’ve found that people in emergency housing sometimes don’t have big enough fridges or ovens to store the foil trays or heat the food up, so they’ve used smaller-sized trays and items that can go in microwaves. “Some of the more popular meals have been bacon and egg pie, mince or chicken pasta bake and curried sausages on rice.” 

The school uses donated food and vouchers to contribute to ingredients for Kura Kai meals as well as the food tech budget, as making the meals is part of learning at the school. Tauhara has fundraised to provide ingredients for other popular foods like cheese toasties and pancakes for school mufti days. 

Everyone agrees, however, that there is an urgent need for food in schools, no matter how it’s provided. “Volunteers [for Kura Kai] who we talked to are passionate about keeping kids in schools, but there’s a big burden, and they can’t fix it alone – it creates a danger of burnout,” says Palakshappa. She thinks it’s essential that food provided in schools is context specific, to reduce waste and make it easier to nourish kids who need it.

Trevor, too, has learned that making food available is complex logistically, even when everyone knows it is needed. “Many of our meals are distributed by the Taupō attendance team, who know which whānau are living in emergency housing, and turning up with a meal has helped to break down barriers and show they are there to help.” Since initially becoming part of Kura Kai three years ago, the demand for kai at school “has grown hugely,” she says. “The need for snacks and hot soup at interval and lunchtime is increasing so much that we are no longer able to keep up the demand.” 

“School lunches do a great job, but there’s need outside that,” adds Paterson, the Kura Kai general manager. “When school holidays are on, for schools not part of the programme – we can have food available 24/7, with no wait time.” The Ka Ora, Ka Ako programme currently feeds 230,000 students a day around the country; the new targeted version of the scheme will also be in some early childhood education centres. Seven hundred schools throughout the country, as well as 205 early childhood centres, receive food of some kind through KidsCan. A further 89 schools are on its waiting list. According to Statistics New Zealand, one in eight children live in households experiencing material hardship.

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