Free milk coming back to primary schools

ANDREA FOX AND NICOLA BRENNAN
Last updated 05:00 15/12/2011
MILKY MO: Cayden Jackson could be one of a new generation of school children to enjoy free milk, like the youngsters of previous generations.
MARK TAYLOR/Fairfax NZ
MILKY MO: Cayden Jackson could be one of a new generation of school children to enjoy free milk, like the youngsters of previous generations.

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Free milk is coming back to primary schools as dairy giant Fonterra prepares to launch a peace offensive with New Zealanders.

The country's biggest company is to make an announcement tomorrow on "initiatives to help make milk more accessible to Kiwis".

Sources told the Waikato Times the target is young school children and the milk will be free.

When milk delivery will start, how long Fonterra intends to donate milk and whether it is acting alone or partnering with community agencies is unknown.

But free school milk will be a public relations winner for the farmer-owned company, which controls the price of milk at most sales levels in New Zealand.

It has been in hot water with consumers over climbing dairy product prices, including fresh milk. It has linked rising prices at the supermarket chiller to the strong prices it has received for its farmers' product in international markets in the past 18 months.

Donating milk to schools would also help hose down public perceptions of Fonterra as a major contributor to "dirty dairying".

It is also a shrewd marketing move, possibly sparking improved sales of the whole Fonterra product range.

Free milk was last seen in Kiwi primary schools 44 years ago.

It was given to school children between 1937 and 1967 under a world-first Labour Government health scheme. Each day "milk monitors" gave a half pint (284 ml) of milk to each pupil and by 1940, milk was available to 80 per cent of schoolchildren.

The scheme was dropped in 1967 by the government of the day on cost grounds and because the public was starting to question the benefits of milk.

Intended to improve the health and welfare of young Kiwis, the scheme was also credited with putting generations off milk for life. In the days before fridges and chillers, the daily offering was often warm and smelly.

The public outcry this year over the cost of milk sparked several official inquiries into how Fonterra sets its prices. These are ongoing.

A vocal critic of the rising prices and Fonterra's dominance in price setting was watchdog ConsumerNZ. Chief executive Sue Chetwin said it would be "fantastic" if Fonterra gave milk to schools.

"It would be hugely generous and a massive PR pat on the back for them.

"Maybe we have caused them some pain this year – Fonterra may not be the favourite company they want to be with New Zealanders. Maybe it would not be entirely altruistic but it would be fantastic for parents, kids and teachers. It would have to be all schools and it would need to be refrigerated!"

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During the milk price row Federated Farmers said New Zealanders were not paying too much compared to other countries. But Waikato dairy division representative Chris Lewis supported the idea of Fonterra giving free milk to schools, saying the cost would be probably be covered in the company's sales and marketing budget.

Former Fonterra Shareholders Council chairman Blue Read also supported the idea.

"It would be a focus in the right area, which is kids. If we do get involved we should do it properly, with refrigeration."

Fonterra collected nearly 15.5 billion litres of milk from its farmers last season and its revenues nudged $20 billion.

BOOST FOR CHILDREN IN POVERTY

Rumours Fonterra is looking to start up a milk-in-schools scheme is music to the ears of those who have seen first hand the health and educational damage that can be done to poor, hungry children.

Poverty Action Waikato researcher Anna Cox said it was good news, if true.

"Anything like that is great, particularly given the increasing cost of food – this move would benefit a lot of people."

A Child Poverty Action Group report said providing a free meal a day to a child would have a significant impact on poverty, Ms Cox said yesterday.

"So obviously milk would be a good contributor to that."

Making milk cheaper would also greatly benefit children's health, allowing them access to milk instead of cheap soft drinks.

DHB medical officer of health Felicity Dumble said one of the great things about milk was that it's considered a `complete' food, with a wide range of nutrients essential for growth.

Ms Dumble said when healthy basics became too expensive it exacerbated problems that led to malnutrition or even obesity.

Putaruru principal Trish Scown said providing free milk to schools would increase childrens' learning.

Her school has been part of the Kickstart Breakfast Programme – sponsored by Fonterra and Sanitarium – since 2009. The programme provides free breakfast to sponsor schools.

"It does make a huge difference to their learning and their general wellbeing," she said.

"They're definitely able to concentrate better and they're able to be more involved in their learning if they aren't always having to worry about a rumbling tummy."

Waikato principals association president Pat Poland welcomed the news.

As a child growing up in the free milk era, he said it would be of huge benefit for the children.

SAD STATISTICS

Children who go to school without breakfast – 17 per cent.

Households with children which run out of food – 22 per cent.

Households with children who use food banks – 10 per cent.

Source: Ministry of Health 2003 survey of 3000 children aged 5-14

- Waikato Times

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