The BulletinMay 9, 2024

A busy week at school for David Seymour


The school lunches programme has been retained – and will be extended to some preschoolers. So how is it going to cost $107 million less? To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

The minister with many hats

David Seymour wears a number of hats, but this week the Act leader has spent much of it donning one labelled “associate minister of education”. He’s primarily in charge of the revival of partner schools, but that work won’t start until later in the year. In the meantime, he’s been busying himself with overhauling the lunch in schools programme, of which details were revealed yesterday. Stuff’s Bridie Witton breaks down the announcement here, explaining that the same number of students that currently access the scheme will continue to do so, but it will cost $107m less than under Labour. That’s despite extending it to include 10,000 preschoolers, with the cost-saving primarily made through ordering items in bulk. The revamped scheme will cost $407m, allowing primary schoolers to continue accessing the school lunches as they are now until the end of 2026, while high schoolers will be fed under an alternative (and cheaper) model. A full refresh for older students will be drawn up later this year with the support of an expert advisory group. In a piece for Newsroom Pro this morning (paywalled), Laura Walters described the reaction to the announcement as largely positive, but notes that state centralisation of the lunch scheme appears to go against what Act traditionally stands for.

A win… for Labour?

The opposition was quick to claim the new announcement as a win, RNZ reported, with education spokesperson Jan Tinetti saying Seymour had failed to get the “cuts to the programme he campaigned on”. In March, The Press reported that Seymour was hoping to cut the scheme by as much as half, prompting concern from families that they could end up missing out. But while Seymour says no student will go hungry under the interim programme, some food providers will lose out. BusinessDesk’s Cécile Meier reported that thousands of jobs could be affected – but the precise number isn’t known. The new bulk-ordered lunches will cover 150,000 students, more than half of the 235,000 who receive the food. One food provider, Belinda Philp from Soul Kitchen, told RNZ’s Checkpoint that she was still “thinking through the ramifications” of the new announcement, but it would impact staff. “That hurts my heart… It has drastically cut our lunches that we supply.” The business currently supplies 300 daily lunches to a local high school, something that will end once the new model’s enforced.

What’s on the menu? And is it ‘woke’?

“It’s out with quinoa and hummus and in with sandwiches and other lunchbox basics,” reported the Herald, paraphrasing an official government press release, while the Act Party Twitter account and Seymour’s personal Facebook page said there would be no more “woke” food like sushi. This Spinoff explainer from March goes into more detail about the kind of lunch items provided by the lunch scheme currently. Christopher Luxon wasn’t happy to be asked about woke foods, wrote the Herald’s Thomas Coughlan, despite it being a line from his coalition partner. For an idea of what many kids are eating this week, check out the menu from Libelle, one of the largest current providers of the school lunch scheme, featuring such “woke items” as Mex mince and ham pizza. The Ministry of Education lists a fixed lunch price of about $5 to $9 per lunch. Under the refreshed scheme, it’ll be more like $3 – a figure that Seymour told reporters even he was surprised by. KidsCan, he said, was only spending $2 per student to provide food in schools. The charity was one of a number of groups consulted by the government when devising the new scheme. Despite the bulk buying, Seymour maintained it would be nutritious. “It will be made up of the sorts of food items thousands of mums and dads put into lunch boxes every day for their kids,” he said. One group that strongly disagreed was Healthcare Coalition Aotearoa, claiming in a statement that the programme “downgrade” would rob children of “nutrition, well-being, immunity and fuel to learn”.

On the topic of hummus, one Labour MP got into a bit of hot water last night over a since-deleted tweet. Stuff reported that Duncan Webb had shared that Seymour didn’t like hummus because “it’s too close to h@m@s [sic]”. He has since apologised and Chris Hipkins called it “a mistake”.

A busy week for the minister, and more work to come

Seymour’s official title specifies that he’s the minister responsible for partnership schools, but told The Bulletin that education minister Erica Stanford had asked him to take responsibility for revamping the lunch programme. Earlier this week, he made another non-partnership schools announcement: launching a new online portal to monitor school attendance. The question of whether truancy is really as bad as the government claims is contentious, as this piece from Rachel Judkins on The Spinoff in March examined. This Newsroom piece takes a look at similarities between the coalition’s education policies and ideas put forward by a right-wing think tank. For Seymour, his attention likely now returns to charter schools. Introducing legislation to parliament on the issue is part of the government’s current quarterly action plan which ends on June 30. Seymour told me he was on track to meet that deadline.

To finish, circling back to lunches. If you’re wondering what constitutes a “woke” food item, you’ve come to the right place. The Spinoff’s newly assembled Bureau of Wokeness has analysed the data and compiled a definitive list of woke foods. It’s extremely comprehensive.

Keep going!