Govt guarded on free meals in poor schools

The Government is not prepared to commit to providing a food programme for hungry schoolchildren despite saying it is "open to ideas" around addressing the problem.

Research shows 25 per cent of children in Waikato's decile one and two schools have some degree of food need - that increased to 100 per cent at some of the schools enrolled with the Kickstart breakfast programme.

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English has confirmed he is open to a national food strategy for the country's poorest schools, but press secretary Joanne Black yesterday said "no new decisions have been made".

Labour leader David Shearer described it as a U-turn, saying Prime Minister John Key had been "pooh-poohing" the idea last month.

However, Waikato Principals' Association chair John Coulam welcomed any government-led initiative that helped to lift the achievement of children living in poverty.

"Household income and poverty do in fact affect student performance, so, from an educational point of view, if that is one of the barriers to a child succeeding in learning then I would applaud it being addressed," he said.

"I just hope that the Government's developing a social conscience. That would be wonderful, wouldn't it?"

However, Ms Black could not be drawn on any details around any food provision plan.

“Food in schools needs to be kept in context.

"While no-one pretends that living on a low income is easy, thousands of beneficiaries and low-income New Zealanders manage their money every week and meet their costs, including feeding their children."

She cited a Health Sponsorship Council survey from 2007, which showed about 97 per cent of 5 to 12-year-olds have breakfast every day or most school days.

However, a report released by Poverty Action Waikato suggested the problem of hungry schoolchildren was much more widespread.

Their research found that 25 per cent of children at the region's decile one and two schools that were enrolled with the Kickstart breakfast programme had some degree of food need.

The need varied from 100 per cent of kids at some schools to 10 per cent at others.

"Given their relationship with children and families, along with their facilities and grounds, school communities are in a unique position to support the development of community food security," the report said.

Mr Shearer also said Government statistics showed 80,000 children often went without breakfast.

He accused Mr English of doing a U-turn on the issue and "picking up" Labour's idea of providing free food to 650 of the lowest decile primary and intermediate schools in the country.

“One can only speculate that they have bowed to popular opinion," he said.

"We know putting food into schools isn't the be-all and end-all, but if it's going to help our kids become better kids, then it's a start," Shearer said.

However, Ms Black said Labour was "utterly wrong" to say the Government had made any kind of concession.

Mr Coulam suggested the publication of schools' national standards data last month may have jolted the Government into addressing the link between poverty and achievement.

"If they're really serious about raising student achievement . . . then they need to address all the barriers, and hunger is one of those barriers."

Mr English was in London and could not be contacted yesterday.

Waikato Times