Editorial: Hungry kids symptom of root cause

The idea of providing breakfast and lunch for poor children in schools has a superficial appeal.

The thought that any child should be going to school hungry is an appalling one, particularly for a country that is not only relatively prosperous but is abundant in food, which it aspires to the rest of the world.

Common sense tells us that hungry children are restive and distracted. It is well known that hunger is a powerful disincentive to concentration and learning and that hungry children do measurably less well in class.

All this explains to some degree why the proposal in Hone Harawira's Education (Breakfast and Lunch Programmes) in Schools Amendment Bill to provide fully state-funded breakfast and lunch programmes into all decile 1 and 2 schools in New Zealand has attracted some support.

The bill has still to be considered by the House but a new coalition of 24 church, union and community groups is lobbying hard for it.

Harawira, who has been more notable for his absence from Parliament than for anything he has done recently, is working energetically to promote it. And this week the Prime Minister, John Key, acknowledged the problem and did not rule out Government support for the idea.

But while there may be a problem with undernourished children in schools, a programme to provide food for them there is not the answer to it.

Harawira has estimated that his proposal to provide free breakfast and lunch to children in decile 1 and 2 schools would cost $100 million. That money could be better spent on programmes that get to the root of the problem.

One difficulty is the sheer logistics of the proposal. Most schools are neither set up nor staffed to provide meals to pupils. One figure much bandied about during recent debate has suggested that 80,000 children go to school each morning without having had breakfast.

While that number has a whiff of the Ministry of Made-Up Numbers about it, even confined to decile 1 and 2 schools, Harawira's proposal would be a large and time- consuming effort to get breakfast and lunch to all those deemed to need them.

But the main difficulty with Harawira's idea is that it tackles the issue from the wrong end. Hungry children in school are a just symptom of a root cause - inadequate, negligent parenting and decision-making.

For the state to take over providing something as fundamental as proper meals will, if anything, only aggravate that root cause.

The more dud parents become aware that their children will be fed if they fail to do so, the more they will be inclined to abdicate the responsibility.

Providing a decent breakfast and lunch for a child is hardly an onerous or expensive task. Eggs on toast or cereal for breakfast, and sandwiches with a nourishing filling for lunch, are within the capacity of every parent.

Given the level of State support for those with low incomes, or no income at all, there can be no valid excuse for any parent sending a child to school without breakfast and proper food for lunch.

The Associate Minister of Health, Peter Dunne, was precisely right when he said parents have got the primary responsibility in this area. To the extent that they do not fulfil it, they should be counselled, advised and supported so that they do.

The $100m Harawira wants to spend on his programme would be far better spent where the problem starts, with poor parents, not at the end.

The Press