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Universal Free Lunches Mean Poor Kids Aren't Stigmatised

Children Need Lunch to Learn - Universal Free Lunches Mean Poor, Hungry Kids Aren't Stigmatised

By Julia Batchelor-Smith

We're told there's no such thing as a free lunch. But when it comes to Kiwi kids, there should be.

Our statistics make for depressing reading: 1 in 4 children living in poverty, 1 in 3 obese or overweight, and 1 in 3 admitted to Starship in a malnourished state. Kids are the bedrock upon which our society is founded. What could be more important than feeding them at school?

We can't ignore our child poverty problem any longer. Implementing a universal school lunch programme would go a long way to addressing this hideous issue.

So why all kids? Wouldn't this mean paying for rich kids to have a free lunch?

No, not necessarily.

A universal system can be conceptualised in many ways to suit the New Zealand context, from all lunches being funded, to some subsidised, to some paid for outright by parents. The current school donation system adopts a similar approach, with those who can pay, paying, and those who can't, not.

The concept of providing lunch for all is different from funding lunch for all.

Here's the critical bit: it's got to be a universal system to work. Targeted provision of food is not effective, because it can't capture every child going hungry, stigmatises kids receiving a "hand-out", and fails to achieve the social boost inherent in all kids being treated equally.

A universal free lunch in schools campaign would enable poor kids to get the nutrition they need without feeling shamed.

A universal system leads to across-the-board social, educational and nutritional uplift, raising academic results for all kids by 3-5%, and for those most in need, by 18-40 per cent. The policy stacks up economically too: for every $1 spent, $3-8 is returned to our economy in health and education gains.

The benefits don't stop there. When kids eat together in a regular and coordinated manner, not only do their concentration rates and overall behaviour improve, they also develop social cohesion and responsibility, positively impacting their home lives. Most OECD nations do this – why don't we?

There's no doubt that moving from a packed lunch to lunch at school represents a cultural change for us as a nation. But Kiwis have embraced paradigm shifts of this magnitude before. When ACC was founded in 1974 to provide a universal, no-fault accidental injury scheme, the concept was radical. In 2018, ACC is so firmly ingrained in our culture that the prospect of breaking a leg and not being able to afford the medical care to fix it is, quite rightly, incomprehensible to New Zealanders.

So why not being fed at school, too? Why is it OK for kids to come to school hungry, but not for a person to pay for a broken leg?

Yes, there are plenty of kids who don't need a "free lunch". And there are some parents who this policy will appeal to solely because they don't want to have to deal with packed lunches day in, day out. Neither is a reason not to embrace this for New Zealand.

Food in our schoolkids' tummies translates to uplift in nutritional, educational, and social outcomes for all. Isn't that worth ingraining in our national identity?

Julia Batchelor-Smith is an Eat Right, Be Bright campaigner.


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