Food in schools has been the topic of a great deal of public discussion in recent years. While schools have been providing breakfasts, and in some cases lunches, to children for many years, the bigger question of whether the need warrants government intervention remains largely unresolved.
While the New Zealand public are generally in favour of providing food to children,1 others are less certain of the need for, or wisdom of, such provision. The chief argument against state provision—and this is the view of the current National Party-led government—is that feeding children is the parents’ responsibility. Other arguments are that (1) providing food in schools makes parents ‘create an expectation’ of provision, and (2) there is always money in the household budget for breakfast, if only parents chose to prioritise it. Ranged against these views are those in favour for a range of reasons including that if children are hungry, then they should be fed.
This editorial considers the government response to food in schools, including recent advice from Treasury; it then outlines some reasons to support food in schools, and finishes by reflecting on broader issues of children’s right to food.
In 2012 the Children’s Commissioner’s Expert Advisory Group on child poverty recommended the New Zealand Government give immediate attention to designing and implementing “a collaborative food-in-schools programme, commencing with lower socioeconomic (decile 1 to 4) primary and intermediate schools.”2 The government’s response to the EAG’s recommendation was to provide $9.5 million over 5 years to support the provision of food in schools by food manufacturing corporates Fonterra and Sanitarium, and private charity KidsCan. Although the Fonterra and Sanitarium’s food in schools programme is expanding, an estimated 80,000 children miss out on breakfast every day due to the lack of nationwide coverage.
The government’s tepid response to the EAG’s recommendation was largely informed by a Treasury briefing paper which outlined the “two immediate problems” food in schools might be expected to address as “improving educational outcomes”, and “alleviating hardship and suffering”.3 While the paper acknowledged “low parental income” as a factor in children’s hunger, it suggested other measures such as budgeting classes and parenting programmes could deal with less well defined issues including “different cultural norms” and children who refuse to eat breakfast.
Treasury based much of its analysis on the 2007 Children’s Food and Drink Survey.4 This shows that the likelihood of a child not eating breakfast increases sharply as they get older. For younger children (5–7 years), 91% had breakfast every school day, falling to 71% for 13–16 year olds. This suggests that food in schools aimed at primary schools is more likely to improve children’s nutritional status in those cases where food is not served at home. It also suggests that Treasury’s claims that children ‘choose not’ to eat breakfast is more applicable to adolescents and teens. This is one reason the EAG and others such as Child Poverty Action Group have focused on younger children.
Treasury’s suggested role for the government was to contribute to KidsCan or create a contestable fund. In the event, KidsCan and Fonterra received funding. More problematically—and this is emerging as a general trend in the government’s efforts to deal with child poverty—was Treasury’s ‘principle’ of targeting those most in need, along with the possibility of ‘reprioritising’ existing scarce funds to provide food in schools.
Reasons to support school food programmes
Treasury’s reasoning largely rested on a New Zealand study that provided food in schools over a year and found no statistically significant effect on children’s school attendance or academic achievement.5 The study did, however, find “a significant decrease in children’s self-reported short-term hunger.” Yet a child’s rights perspective dictates that the alleviation of hunger must be the primary focus of food in schools: no child is responsible for his or her own hunger.
While the New Zealand study did not find any improvement in children’s school attendance or academic performance, other studies have found such improvements,6 although using different methodologies and reporting methods. Teachers and principals interviewed by CPAG during its research on the impact of food in schools7 argued that breakfast improved both children’s school attendance and classroom performance.
A key reason to support food in schools for all children that need it (not just those “most in need’) is improved nutrient uptake, and the longer term benefits associated with this. In the first instance, there is the immediate benefit of a nutritious meal, but there are longer-term benefits associated with improved nutrient uptake over time (including improved academic performance), as well as evidence that school breakfasts can reduce obesity.8
A surprise finding of CPAG’s research, and perhaps one of the more compelling arguments for breakfast in schools, was the positive social impact of school breakfasts. Most schools strive to provide a safe environment for children, and often breakfast clubs doubled as spaces for children to socialise or do homework if they were unable to do so at home. Indeed, school staff felt the social and community benefits were as important as the food itself.
Clearly, not all the benefits of food in schools can be captured in a time-limited experiment or in purely dollar terms, especially those around positive social outcomes. Nonetheless, we consider they are sufficiently well-established to justify the investment in a food in schools programme along the lines outlined by the EAG.
Broader issues of support for children
There is little doubt the underlying reason so many New Zealand children go without breakfast is that households simply do not have sufficient money. Data from the Ministry of Social Development shows that from 2010–2013, the number of children living in households with incomes less than 40% of the median wage increased by 20,000 to 135,000 (13% of all New Zealand children).9 New Zealand research has also identified children of working parents as regular users of school breakfast clubs. Many low-income parents work long hours and it is not uncommon for children to arrive at school very early not having eaten. Poverty is also a feature of many of these working households, with 40% of children in poverty living in households with at least one adult in work.
As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the New Zealand Government has an obligation to ensure all children are provided adequate protection and care to ensure their wellbeing. Article 27(1) recognises the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development, and Article 27(2) says that states shall take appropriate measures to assist parents and others responsible for the child to provide material assistance and support programmes. Similarly, Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states: “…Parties to the present Covenant, recognising the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger”. Furthermore, child poverty in New Zealand has a steep ethnic gradient, and the Crown has an obligation under the Treaty of Waitangi to protect and nurture Māori children.
The large number of New Zealand children who do not receive adequate nutrition is not only a violation of New Zealand’s international and Treaty obligations, it violates their rights as children. Children must be protected not because they are future productive workers, but because they are today’s citizens.
This ‘right to food’, of which universally available food in low-decile schools is but a small facet, cuts across the neoliberal foundations of New Zealand’s social assistance architecture. Far removed from the notion of citizenship and participation, New Zealand’s current social assistance is framed in the language of independence, individual responsibility, and targeting towards those “who need it most”. The support of central government for privatised provision of food in schools not only fails to address the rights of children but has opened the way for schools to become sites for corporate marketing and entrepreneurial private charities.10 Troublingly, despite the laudable intentions of community organisations, there is evidence that this charitable provision of food in schools acts against the best interests of children it purports to help.11
As O’Brien and Wynd both observe, while there is a nascent ‘politics of hope’ in the food in schools debate, the dominant discourse of personal responsibility, along with the new interest in schools as marketing venues undermines the right to food that should be part of every child’s bundle of rights and expectations. After more than 20 years of foodbanks and breakfasts in schools, charity has failed to plug the gaping hole left by the inadequate incomes of many thousands of New Zealand families. Indeed, charities cannot be expected to ensure adequate incomes. In the end, it is improved families’ incomes that will ensure that children’s right to food is secured and government has the key role here.
An estimated 80,000 New Zealand children go without breakfast every day. While the government has put in some money to help Fonterra, Sanitarium and KidsCan extend their existing programmes, it falls short of the need, particularly as the number of children in very low-income households continues to rise. Implicitly blaming parents (and suggesting this gap can be filled by parenting and budgeting programmes) demeans and insults many thousands of parents who are highly motivated to do the best by their children, and often work long hours to accomplish this.
In light of New Zealand’s persistently high rates of child poverty, food in schools programmes (and other assistance for low-income households) need to be expanded. Tighter targeting moves away from provision based on the rights of children, and may result in children from disengaged or hard-to-reach families falling through the gaps. Likewise, shifting funding from one needy group to another group (arbitrarily designated as a more needy group) is a zero-sum game.
As a matter of equity, greater resources must be provided to children in low-decile schools. The alleviation of hunger and recognition of children’s right to adequate food is sufficient justification.
Note: The views and statements of the authors do not necessarily reflect NZMA policies, unless stated as such.