Is free breakfast in schools working?

A scheme to feed breakfast to needy children was hashed out over a swanky business lunch nearly five years ago.

Finally, the Government is putting millions of dollars behind the big-business plan to create more Weet-Bix kids.

Advocates fighting child poverty say the move is long overdue, but is not enough and does not address society's fundamental problems.

Others argue that it is taking responsibility away from parents and adding to a culture of dependency.

In an announcement on Tuesday, Prime Minister John Key said the main thing at present was to feed hungry children.

The Government has committed $9.5 million over five years to helping Sanitarium and Fonterra expand their two-day-a-week KickStart breakfast programme.

First, it will be increased to five days, then from next year it will be rolled out to all schools that need it, not just those in the lower deciles.

Schools have to opt in, and communities are expected to help, providing cutlery and doing the dishes.

Charity KidsCan has been both a winner and a loser in the announcement. It lost government funding of $150,000 a year for its food in schools programme, but picked up $500,000 annually for the provision of raincoats, shoes, hygiene products and healthcare.

Founder and chief executive Julie Chapman says things are getting worse for Kiwi children, who are suffering from Third-World diseases, such as rheumatic fever, which have been all but eradicated in most developed nations.

"I would like KidsCan not to be needed in 10 years, but I'm seeing some really horrific things.

"I could tell you things that would make your hair stand on end."

For example, there are the six children at a West Auckland intermediate school who need to wear incontinence pads as a result of poor nutrition that has left them unable to pass bowel movements without an enema, she says.

There are the tales of young girls whose hair was shaved off to deal with nits. There were Christchurch teenage girls who couldn't afford sanitary products and instead used toilet paper.

At a Kaikohe primary school, the entire new entrants' class suffers from sores.

"[My colleague] got back from visiting a school in West Auckland yesterday, came back to the office and told us the story about a little boy who had a boil on his bottom. No-one treated it and he died from septicaemia.

"It could have been easily treated. So this is happening in our own country. It's wrong and people don't know about it."

Children's Commissioner Russell Wills says he would like to see the Government doing more about child poverty, but he understands current fiscal constraints.

The food in schools announcement was part of the Government's response to a report by the commissioner's expert advisory group.

By the Government's own admission, the rest of its response has been largely a replay of past decisions.

"What I would like to see from all sides of the House is to show us that they have a plan to address child poverty," Dr Wills says.

"The EAG [Expert Advisory Group] spelled it out. It starts with setting targets and then you have a plan to achieve those."

Not content to wait, he is developing an annual report on child poverty to measure the success or failure of policies.

"I'm going to keep up the pressure, whoever is in government."

For Michelle McArthur, who runs the Kids Kai Time programme that uses Hurricanes and Blues players to teach health lessons, the additional funding for KickStart is a waste of money. "All the Government's done is raise the profiles of Fonterra and Sanitarium."

Providing lunch for hungry children is much more important. Many children miss out because they don't get to school early enough for the free breakfasts, much of the supplies go to waste, and Sanitarium and Fonterra would probably have extended the programme anyway, she believes.

Sanitarium general manager Pierre van Heerden says the KickStart breakfast programme is about partnership.

It is not a "general feed- everyone programme". Rather, it targets those who need it. Currently, about 10 per cent of children at just over half of all decile 1 to 4 schools are regular attenders.

Forcing schools to take up the programme would create dependency and take away from parental responsibility, he says.

But Petone Central School principal Iosua Esera says he would welcome an expansion of the programme to his decile 5 school. "We see hunger and poverty every day.

"Some kids just can't be bothered having breakfast, but we genuinely have some turn up where the parents just don't have the money to provide it at home.

"Well-to-do families exist here, but we also have those that are struggling to make ends meet.

"Even in a decile 8 school, you'll still find kids in poverty."

For KidsCan's Mrs Chapman, anything that can be done now must be done. That will give the adults time to address the underlying social issues.

"You ask [these kids] what they want to do when they grow up and they say, 'I want to be a doctor', 'I want to be a pilot', 'I want to be a policeman'.

"They're giving the same answers as more fortunate children, but they have less of an opportunity to achieve it. We've all got to do something about it."

BREAKFAST CLUB

The Government will provide $9.5 million over five years to help fund the extension of Sanitarium and Fonterra's KickStart breakfast programme.

The companies will cover the rest of the cost between them.

They will deliver milk and Weet-Bix to each school and the local communities will be expected to organise the rest.

The programme is currently available to all decile 1 to 4 schools two days a week.

This will increase to five days a week in term 3 and, by next year, all schools will be eligible.

The Government will not give money to any other breakfast in schools programmes.

FAMILY'S GROCERY BILL BEAR BRUNT OF SHORTFALL

Being $67.40 in the red at the end of every week means a struggling Porirua family is forced to slash the grocery bill.

Budget adviser Kate Henderson says this is a fairly typical example of life for a couple on the sickness benefit with three school-aged children.

"They manage the shortfall by reducing their grocery spend and they are struggling to provide enough food for the family some weeks, depending on what bills crop up.

"They are also a week behind on their power bill and have had a phone call from their power company asking for $10 a week more to catch up on the arrears."

When finances are this tight, budget advisers stress the top three priorities are rent, power and food.

Possible suggestions for the family in this case include trying to cut back on petrol costs, seeing if they can lower their car payments, and giving the children lunch money every second week instead of every week.

"Even if all these were done, it is likely the family would still be in deficit."

If they were prepared to give up their car, they could save about $147 a week.

"The surplus may be enough to provide the family's transport in the form of bus fares and the occasional taxi ride for grocery shopping, but would be a major loss of independence for the household."

Neither parent is well enough to work, but even if they were, there is a long line of people looking for part-time work in Porirua.

Federation of Family Budgeting Services chief executive Raewyn Fox agrees that food is often the cost that is cut when trying to make ends meet.

"The supermarket ends up low on the list of priorities because of letters and phone calls from other creditors," she said.

"People who don't leave money for food often tried to be responsible in the first place by paying the bills they were being hounded about.

"If something goes wrong, like the fridge breaks down or someone gets sick, it affects the weekly budget a lot."

It's often the creditors who "shout the loudest" that get paid first.

"One of the biggest threats made is you'll lose your credit rating and won't be allowed to borrow again. In actual fact, some families would be better off with a bad credit rating because it would make them stop borrowing."

BREAKFAST LIKE FUEL IN THE TANK

There's a lot of truth in the old adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

In fact, Wellington dietitian Kath Fouhy says it's the meal from which people get the most fibre and least fat. And when it's missed, it's almost impossible to make it up later in the day.

"Weet-Bix and milk - you can't get much better than that. It's low sugar and low fat with high fibre, and combined with milk it's an awesome combination."

For children, the carbohydrates in Weet- Bix are the equivalent of putting petrol in a car. "Milk is protein and it helps sustain energy that you get from the carbs in Weet-Bix. Compare that to a child having a fizzy drink - well, that won't sustain like milk will."

Although every child's required nutritional intake is different, it's likely they will function better on three meals a day. "If kids are getting guaranteed breakfast five days a week, I would expect teachers to see a big change in their behaviour and learning."

It's incredibly important for children to be fed properly while they are still developing, she says. "For that to happen, though, there needs to be change by everyone and government, schools and parents can't do it on their own.

"The people that produce food have to make it with nutritional value. People who sell it have to make it affordable, and people who buy it have to use it to make good healthy meals."

TOAST HANDOUTS BRIDGE GAP, BUT NO SHOES OR CLOTHING

It's one of the poorest schools in the country, but it hasn't yet tapped into the free breakfast club.

That's because Cannons Creek School principal Ruth O'Neill says nothing about the Government's KickStart programme is free.

"The first step is for parents to feed their children," she says. "If we provide it, then they think they don't have to bother."

Although Cannons Creek doesn't have a breakfast club, a teacher goes around the classrooms every morning delivering toast, donated by charity KidsCan, to children who haven't had anything to eat.

"There's no dishes, it doesn't take a whole heap of time, and it's not a big dependency thing," Ms O'Neill says. "It just bridges the gap."

Teachers are busy and "here to teach children, not feed them".

The school could ask parents to help with breakfasts, but there wouldn't be any consistency. "At the absolute bottom line, I agree with John Key that it's parents' responsibility. But if they don't step up, then that's where it becomes difficult. We're one of the poorest schools in the country, so, yes, we'll tap into the five days of breakfast eventually, but my question is who is providing the bowls and spoons, the storage for the food and milk, and who is doing the washing up?

"I can just imagine having 200 kids in the school hall having breakfast - you would need half the staff there to control them and it would end up a three-ring circus."

Currently offered to all decile 1-4 schools two days a week, KickStart will be extended to five days a week from term 3 this year.

"Food is a pressing need here - we're decile 1A so we're as poor as it gets," Ms O'Neill says. "But when money is being spread over a lot of deciles, that's where crisis poverty gets lost."

There's no comparison between poverty in a decile 1 and a decile 4 school, she says. "I think it's ridiculous that people in decile 3 and 4 schools are receiving the same as decile 1. I've worked in Cannons Creek forever and a day, so maybe my view is narrowed, but I have teachers here that have worked in decile 2 schools, and they say there's just no comparison when it comes to poverty."

She believes the problem is the worst it's been in the Cannons Creek community. "There's more parents out of work and I don't think the benefits have kept up with the pace of inflation - $10 is a lot of money, and I mean a lot of money, for a parent in our school.

"I just don't believe that's the case in a decile 4 school."

In 2009 KidsCan, the All Blacks' official charity, donated jackets to all 180 children at the school, so they could come to school when it was raining.

"There's a real need at the school for things like jackets and shoes. Kids stay at home when it's cold and wet because they don't have a jacket, but then there's no heating at home so in actual fact they'd be better off coming to school where it's warm.

"The other day I had a child come to me crying because it was cold and he had no shoes."

At this time of the year there are families all living in one room, downstairs, with mattresses on the floor because it's the warmest place in the house, she says. "They will live in that one room for the whole of winter."

The school keeps non- perishable foods for those children who don't have lunch and, on average, between eight and 10 lunches are provided daily.

"Kids are getting over the stigma of telling us they've got no lunch. It usually comes down to them getting up in the morning and the bread is mouldy or there's no money to buy lunch.

"If the parents work - not many of them do, but if they do - they clean so they get home at 4.30am and are in bed when the kids get up so they get themselves to school."

WIDER HEALTH LESSONS TAKING HOLD

The success of Glenview School's breakfast club stems from the community buying into the programme.

Health, nutrition and exercise are an important focus at the decile 1 school, and it has three Heart Foundation gold awards to show for it.

Principal Gaylene Hill says a small group of children rely on the KickStart breakfast club for their first meal of the day, but most eat before they get to school.

Over the past five years, Glenview has completely changed its approach to food, its environment and living a healthy lifestyle.

"There are no unhealthy foods brought to school or bought at school, and that's a result of kids taking the healthy message home and even making their own lunches," Mrs Hill says.

Finding a solution has focused on the community working together and feeling a part of the school family. "That sort of attitude really helps with learning in the classroom and taking those ideas home and practising them there as well."

The school has a vegetable garden and all the children play a part in its upkeep. Now more pupils are coming to school saying they spent the weekend making their own vegetable patch.

"I had one of the kids come to me this week saying they were annoyed it was raining in the weekend because they couldn't weed their vege garden," Mrs Hill says.

"The kids are the ones taking it up and they're the best people to sell it to their families. It empowers them, and that's a win- win."

Breakfast club isn't parents abdicating their responsibility, but just another option. "All families go through tough times and, if they don't have breakfast or lunch, we look after them.

"We'd only be making maybe two lunches a week for children that don't have anything."

Although money towards food in schools won't fix "wider societal issues", it's still everyone working together to achieve.

"Eating breakfast improves children's concentration and focus on learning, and physically you see differences as well. They're brighter-eyed, they can engage in what's going on around them, you see smiles and, physically, they have more energy and they're not as sluggish."

The student council cooks lunch at the school every second Friday and, for $2.50, pupils get a healthy cooked lunch. "This week is Samoan language week, so they're making chop suey for lunch.

"We've noticed a real dropoff in children buying lunches throughout the week as they get better at making their own and teaching parents what is healthy."

Government money towards food in schools is great, but ultimately it's the passion of the teaching staff, and families' willingness to adapt and be part of a healthy school, that counts. "Getting the community's support is the priority and parents have stepped up and taken it on board."

Last year all 81 pupils at the school, through fundraising by North Porirua Baptist Church parishioner Simon Legg, received a new pair of shoes. "Initiatives like that are great because shoes definitely are a need at the school."

It also receives knitted hats, gloves and slippers from the Arohata Prison women's knitting group - a scheme run between the school and the Corrections Department. "Those sorts of things really meet the kids needs' and we've never received any negative feedback about it. The parents think it's awesome."

Porirua parents Tufaina and Seanoa Faraimo have had three children educated at Glenview, and their youngest is still at the school.

Mrs Faraimo is a teacher there, while her husband works for Porirua City Council. As a working couple they say it's easier to put breakfast on the table but, when time is limited in the mornings, it's nice knowing there is a fallback option.

But she thinks parents are responsible for the care and feeding of their children, even if it's not always that simple.

"If you start taking away the responsibility of care, the catch- cry is we'll continue in this cycle of kids not learning well because of the issues at home.

"It would be good to see all schools change from it being a rescue mission to it just being about the importance of kids eating breakfast."

The Dominion Post