Organisations working with the poor and opposition parties say Prime Minister John Key is in ''la la land'' if he thinks fruit is enough to get a hungry child through a school day.
Labour yesterday unveiled a $10 million policy to provide free food to 650 of the country's lowest decile primary and intermediate schools.
Key immediately rejected the idea, saying free fruit was already provided in the ''vast bulk'' of low-decile schools and there was often a breakfast programme.
''Not every school wants every child to be provided a lunch,'' he told reporters in Russia before leaving for Japan. ''There are many families that can provide those lunches.''
Key conceded more needed to be done because there was a waiting list for the food in schools programme, Kidscan.
Mangere Budgeting Services chief executive Darryl Evans said there were hungry children throughout New Zealand, particularly in South Auckland and parts of Christchurch.
His organisation ran a breakfast club at the Southern Cross Campus school in Mangere East. ''We estimated we would get about 30 kids a week turning up, we had 80 on one day.''
Teachers also reported children were having their lunches stolen by other children, he said. ''Not because they're naughty but because they're hungry.''
At most schools in South Auckland half the children ate raw two-minute noodles for lunch and while fruit was better than nothing but wouldn't sustain a child through the school day, Evans said. ''A hungry kid with a rumbling belly learns absolutely nothing.''
Auckland Action Against Poverty spokeswoman Sarah Thompson said food in schools could help keep children in school.
''If you're hungry you're probably going to go to where the food is.''
It is estimated there are 270,000 New Zealand children living in poverty.
Child Poverty Action Group said a national programme was needed because charities couldn't meet all the need.
Spokeswoman Susan St John said it would be a cost effective way to begin to address child poverty.
''It is what happens in Scandinavian countries and Britain. It is a sensible way forward.''
The Greens say Key is against every ''good idea'' to end child poverty.
Co-leader Metiria Turei said Kidscan reported one in 11 children in the four lowest deciles were demonstrably hungry at school and a Health Ministry survey found 20 per cent of households with school-age children didn't have enough food for a healthy lifestyle.
"National is in la la land when it comes to poverty. Their policies are increasing hardship. National's track record on child poverty is a disgrace.''
Child poverty cost taxpayers between $6 and $8 billion a year, she said.
Mana leader Hone Harawira said kids with ''a full puku'' learnt better.
''People shouldn't be fooled into thinking that our current Government is doing all they can to feed hungry kids.
A piece of fruit each day won't keep child poverty away.''