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Time to Get Cereal About Our Kids – Food in Schools

wheatbix_moneyThe Government’s food in schools plan isn’t all snap crackle and pop, and certainly won’t solve the underlying issues.

It would be mean-spirited to rain on the PM’s parade. Who can really have anything too negative to say about giving a basic breakfast to kids who are going to school hungry? Yes, parents are letting down the team by making the rest of us stump up, but the reality is we invest a bucket load of money in their education already. While we spend far more on the elderly, at least we can view the money spent on kids as an investment. So why not enhance the return on that investment by throwing in a few Weetbix each morning?

The Government tells us they are joining a collaborative programme that already works well, with existing partners, which seems a smart way to spend tax payer dollars. Adding in early treatment for infectious sores and nits is a logical extension. The only problem is that independent evaluation of the existing Sanitarium and Fonterra scheme hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. It turns out that their generosity isn’t resulting in more kids eating breakfast, they have just switched to eating at school instead of at home.[i] The fruit and milk in schools programmes don’t share these problems.[ii][iii]

Why doesn’t the free breakfast work while free milk and fruit does? Breakfast, it seems, is a habit and if you’re not in the habit you’re not going to change. It is difficult to know why, but it seems that people that grow up not eating a typical breakfast simply can’t face it, even if it is free. Breakfast eating needs to be encouraged from an early age. Perhaps the habit will be easier to form now that a free breakfast is being offered 5 days a week rather than 2 days as currently occurs. Providing fruit or other lunch later in the day is an easier sell, and an opportunity for these kids to get on board a much wider variety of nutrients that a growing body needs.

All the overseas experience suggests that the nutrition of our youth is far more complex than merely chucking a few Weetbix and milk in a bowl. We know for sure that balanced nutrition is hugely important in the development of healthy adult minds and bodies. While providing milk and grains may help (except of course for up to 1 in 5 kids with either gluten or lactose intolerances) our real issue is a culture where kids eat too much fake food and not enough of the real stuff, especially fruit and veg. Turning this around takes many things: education about nutrition, growing and cooking food is vital, as is changing the food environment faced by kids in and around schools. So while this new policy may turn out to be a good first step, the Government needs to make sure this policy is well evaluated. It then needs to be open to trialling some other approaches, which up until now they have ruled out as ‘nanny statist’. Equally significant questions include what happens to pre-schoolers or kids on weekends and holidays? Or even poor kids going to rich schools?

It feels as if we have been delivered a pleasant distraction – some feel-good light relief – to take our minds off the more important issue which is why do we have such high levels of child poverty at all? We’re a developed country, rich by many standards, yet some of our kids live in unacceptably deprived conditions.

The answer is we have a 70 year old welfare system that is out of step with modern life and is therefore unable to deal to child poverty effectively. In a twist of irony, at the same time as the PM was making soothing noises about food, judges in the Court of Appeal were dealing with this more pressing issue, working their way through blow by blow accounts of how aspects of Working for Families are contributing to the struggle of New Zealand’s poorest families by allegedly illegally denying beneficiary kids the financial support given to kids whose parents are fortunate enough to have paying jobs. The findings from the Appeal Court’s hearing are not yet known.

Until we properly reform our welfare system we’re not going to make headway against childhood poverty. We need a system that can provide a meaningful floor under everyone, given the modern realities of insecure work, a lifetime need to retrain and volatile family arrangements. More and more tinkering with what we have, while making it more punative whenever the opportunity arises and eligibility is in doubt, is not the answer. Nor, despite it being a positive palliative, is food in schools the silver bullet. It addresses the symptom not the cause. Either addressing family dysfunction or poverty remain the targets



[i] Ni Mhurchu, C et al. Effects of a free school breakfast programme on children’s attendance, academic achievement and short-term hunger: results from a stepped-wedge, cluster randomised controlled trial. J Epidemiol Community Health(2012). doi:10.1136/jech-2012-201540

[ii] Boyd, S. et al (2009) The changing face of Fruit in Schools: 2009 overview report. Final Healthy Futures evaluation report. Prepared for the Ministry of Health

  • Karl

    Was talking to a lady the other day who saw a child ask for some fruit from the parent to be asked if they get fruit in schools on a yes answer the adult said “So why should I buy you any” so you tell me where the problem is coming from.

    • Susan Leslie

      So you’re judging every parent in New Zealand by this woman’s behaviour? Not fair or even sensible. Not to mention the possibility that the money she didn’t spend on fruit was used to buy meat or cheese or some other essential she wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford.

  • anneleise hall

    Ironic that a government that can’t find in it’s ideology to continue to
    support or grow the enviroschools programme which often included a
    school garden, healthy fresh produce, earning gardening skills and
    cooking seasonally is happy to get into bed with a couple of
    corporations to boost their public good perception. I guess at least
    some of those kids will get access to milk, now up to 5 times the prices
    of a bottle of soft drink, also ironic when we have 1.5 dairy cows for
    each New Zealander (plus the associated cost to the land and waterways
    from intensive dairying also that will be paid for by future generations). There’s something in it for them that supercsedes public good, capitalism and democracy are quite mutually incompatible, and this Government shows contempt toward democracy. Isn’t Sanatarium an Aussie company? Perhaps I’m a cynic.

  • http://www.sanderson.co.nz/Artist/139/Paul-Martinson.aspx Paul Martinson

    all true…esp the last paragraph,
    it’s a ‘weet-bix’ patch over a gaping wound in NZ society. One in which generations of parents lack any understanding of the importance of health and the well being of their children ..because perhaps they themselves were neglected.
    But now… it’s as though poverty and the despair that goes with it ..are being allowed to further excuse neglectfulness of children by their caregivers and the cycle will never be broken. It’s only making it worse.

    • wikiriwhi

      Hot porridge is far more beneficial and filling

      • http://www.sanderson.co.nz/Artist/139/Paul-Martinson.aspx Paul Martinson

        very true.

  • Lorna Sandeman

    You know, I still think NZ went to hell in a hand-basket, post Rogernomics. Those policies, seemed to wipe out communities’ ability to help themselves & involve small local businesses too. The latter became so focused on their bottom line, they had no more time for local involvement. It’s like we were safely bunched up in a safe fist and suddenly it opened and we scattered all over the ground crawling around trying to find the way back.

    • wikiriwhi

      Rogernomics was total UN heresy to this country. and remember it was labour who first introduced the sale of state assets after… taking away the treason laws which stopped them from selling in 1989. No one makes that correlation. Winston 2014

  • Susan Leslie

    I agree with everything in this article – and not just because my kids are lactose intolerant. I still think it’s a good idea, but certainly not anything to get all excited about.

  • Carolyn Stock

    I agree that the welfare system is out of touch, along with public perception often misguided. In particular, there is a need to address the moralism that attaches to current ideas concerning work and social responsibility.

  • Maree Conaglen

    When my children were at primary school in Rotorua, I was a single Mum on the DPB. I really was thankful that the school my children went to provided free fruit, as buying a wide variety of fruit was out of my budget. As it got closer to pay day often the food on the cupboard was really scarce not because I drunk alcohol or smoked but because rent was a major drain on my income. This reality has become worse for many. I have no problem now, as a working tax payer, of supporting healthy cooked meals in schools…like many overseas countries do already. Children should not have to suffer because of their families circumstances. This should be a priority in a decent society and it should be government funded. Feed the kids!

  • Barry Thomas

    Gareth,
    I like your logic all through and would add… that perhaps the underlying issue that drives poverty is a deep seated distrust and disrespect for the economic model. Maori have a cogent and real world view – it is at odds with your ‘modern economy’ hence people who are basically forced to comply – with low earning power and long hours to cover the basics of life feel crushed by the system – so often they do not even vote let alone aspire to the competitive rat race and models of advertising propelled aspirations. Most poor people do not give a rat arse about the Jonses. Don’t want or need the kind of life style our economy is trained to sell to the highest bidders. The so called debt imbalance between goods in and leaving our shores, likewise results in an unholy hawking off of our very core capacity to feed our people … our destroyed forests feed the cows that earn the collateral that brings in the stupid baubles of Chinese (et al) junk that any people could (and I say should) do without. We grew up with free milk in schools because then there was a social agreement that the vast rural wealth of Aotearoa should turn up at the free schools we attended. Now in this, barrier free, trading world our core capacity to deliver such social benefits must come via attavistic marketing departments of both Fontera and the National party… You see the diff mate? Then we had a base egalitarian ethic – now it’s still justified (the milk and ‘bix’ fiscally within the brand marketing budgets of the self serving corporates… and I do include Sanitarium in this mix. They still come out way on top but the real debt comes from the off shore balance of trade deficits which are forcing our people into buying crap… getting into debt… and no doubt contributing to the rich/poor gap growth.

    Given Key’s interest in shutting down (and shutting up) any and all community funding, education, collective voices from WCC tenants to Unions to you name it… you see the real trend is quite simply – to keep them poor, quiet and docile.

    I say – engage in the real debate about poverty at all these levels and we will see real shifts in lifting poverty levels. Pour real resources into lifting the creativity of all citizens to deliver well being – not life style blocks, debt and baubles. I would even go so far as to say – bugger the obligation to trade (as Aboriginals did when Cook turned up in Aussie) let’s really look after one another and not lift the internationalist, globalist based return to dairy farmers to its record $7 a kilo – let’s feed all kiwis with the bounty of ancient gondwanaland forests and let’s have far fewer computers, cars – oh and while we are at it – let’s return to making houses that don’t leek and last for more than a century… I built a fine little home (off all grids and with running hot water) – for – wait for it – a total outlay of $350. Yep there is only one zero in that figure!

    Barry Thomas
    Artist/ film maker

  • Katy Wallis

    I understand that eating breakfast is a habit and a lot of children won’t eat it even if it is free. However I was at a school where free breakfasts were provided and we actively encouraged children to participate by actually sitting with the children and eating some breakfast too. Or, when the children arrived at school, they would come and talk to the teachers (as children do) and after a little bit of a korero we would then ask “have you had breakfast? and would send those that hadn’t off to have some in groups of twos or threes (which is a lot nicer than eating breakfast alone). This worked. :)

  • Leeanne

    its important to feed our kids but would it not be better to educate people how to manage money first so that they can feed their families themselves make it a mandatory part of the school curriculum

  • Readaholic

    Read the book ‘Switch’ by the Heath brothers. http://heathbrothers.com/books/switch/ For example: Instead of strangers being the ‘experts’ full of advice for complex social situations, they use the people who are already in the community and already doing a good job (find the ‘bright spots’).

  • Curtis Antony Nixon

    As a beneficiary parent who has seen a wide range of parenting styles from great to poor, I feel qualified to recommend a system for those who repeatedly show they cannot wisely spend the cash WINZ gives out each week. Those beneficiaries should be put on a smart card system so that set portions of their benefit monies are allocated to various accounts on the card ie rent, power, phone, food, transport, clothing etc. No way they can spend it on booze, smokes or pokies. Australia has Centrepay which is a voluntary bill pay scheme along these lines – http://www.humanservices.gov.au/customer/services/centrelink/centrepay – but I believe it should be compulsory for those who show a pattern of persistent financial mis-management. Big Brother at work? I think those who ask for government assistance have forgone certain rights to privacy and autonomy that independent citizens can claim.

  • Laura Richards

    When I worked in a community newspaper in Rangitikei, there were schools which provided breakfasts and also fruit for morning breaks. The food came from donations from companies and some rural folk. It is like a dog chasing its tail – the who should pay? And the Why of it all. My heart goes out to families who cannot afford to feed their youngsters due to so many calls on their budgets. It would be fantastic to be able to wave the magic wand – and “poof” the economy is better equipped to provide jobs for everyone. And “poof” everyone who wants a job has one. And “poof” even those who have not wanted to work become mind-abled or able-bodied to do so.