Pointing the finger doesn't help hungry kids

SEAN PLUNKET
Last updated 05:00 15/09/2012

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Sean Plunket

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OPINION: It's a long time since I ate a school lunch. I've made a few in recent years and tried to make them more appetising than the Marmite sandwiches, soft apples and small packet of raisins I seem to remember as my standard fare.

Sometimes I don't make a packed lunch for my son. A few dollars in the pocket means I'm lucky enough to have that option. A lot of parents don't; indeed, some lack the necessary money or motivation to provide breakfast or lunch for their school-age kids.

Short of prying into the life and budgets of every hungry kid's family we just have to take it as fact that for whatever reason some children are going to school hungry and are not getting enough sustenance to get them through the day without losing concentration, feeling listless and not making the most of the state-funded education they are entitled to.

As with most problems in life the initial human reaction is to find someone to blame. In this instance it is either a: dropkick parents b: poverty (most often caused by a rapacious and uncaring Government) or c: the fact that poor people have children they cannot afford to feed.

All three culprits might well have some culpability but pointing the finger or being outraged isn't going to get the hungry kids fed.

Already many schools are teaming up with community groups and businesses to provide breakfast for hungry students. The Government is also chipping in with money for fruit in schools.

Which seems like a pretty good template for solving what is clearly a problem and most often occurs in lower-decile schools.

It might be that extending such programmes will encourage a sense of entitlement among the dropkick parents. It could well be seen as a soft option for pokie-playing, tobacco-smoking beneficiaries who can't get off their butts and take care of their kids properly and it might be more than many taxpayers want to bear given that emergency food grants are already available for those who are truly on the bones of their bums.

But all that aside, extending the current schemes to all decile one to three schools would, we are told, cost maybe $4 million a year. Four million a year, when we are supposedly borrowing $300m a week to service debt, that is chicken feed. It is less than the ad campaigns to talk up the share price of Mighty River Power when the partial float finally goes through and way less than we are paying the consultants who are advising on the programme.

Four million dollars a year is peanuts to ensure hungry children at least get a shot at learning more and having better lives than the parents who can't or won't feed them. And for those who don't send their kids to a school that has food provided, don't feel bitter. Most of you are getting the Working for Families tax credit, which probably makes it easier to put food on the breakfast bar and fill the lunch box. I don't think for a moment it's a good thing that food in schools is needed in this country, but clearly there is enough need to make it necessary and enough people willing to help make it happen.

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The only possible downsides are that some politically correct public servant gets hold of the idea and makes a meal of it with gluten-free, vegetarian and allergenic options being required.

I would also hope that teachers are not required to run the programme; they have enough to do actually trying to teach our kids in between paying their union dues and fighting with Hekia Parata.

Sadly, though, even if the Government sees sense and provides the paltry funding needed for food in schools, the kids whose parents don't make them lunch or breakfast will still miss out.

There is a special joy in sitting in the playground, opening your plastic lunchbox and either blessing your parents for putting all your favourites inside or cursing them as you try trading a Marmite sandwich for honey or a Shrewsbury for a Mallowpuff.

Food in schools might be an ideological tradeoff for some but let us hope the Government in this instance accepts that there really is such a thing as a free lunch.

- The Dominion Post

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