The 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