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Evidence For Free School Lunches: The Bigger Picture Benefits

There’s ample evidence demonstrating free school lunch programmes provide wide benefits across schools, households and communities according to public health researchers.

ACT Minister David Seymour wants to reduce the spending on Aotearoa New Zealand’s free school lunch programme Ka Ora, Ka Ako by half stating there’s no evidence to support it.

However in the latest Briefing from the Public Health Communication Centre, University of Auckland researcher Dr Kelly Garton and co-authors Dr Rachael Glassey and Professor David Tipene-Leach of Te Pūkenga, Hawke’s Bay argue that in addition to published findings from Ka Ora, Ka Ako evaluations, there is international evidence that show the value of school lunch programmes.

Dr Garton says there’s a risk of missing the wider benefits of the programme with a narrow cost-benefit framing. “Evaluations of the NZ programme have been able to measure effects like reduced student hunger, higher physical and mental wellbeing, and improved alertness and capacity to learn, and better attendance for the learners facing the greatest challenges.”

A Kaupapa Māori evaluation has noted identifiable shifts in behaviour, attitudes, attendance and engagement during class for Māori learners according to the authors.

Dr Garton quotes an independent study collecting perspectives of students, whānau and school principals across four Ka Ora, Ka Ako schools in Hawke’s Bay. “This study has found evidence of improved food security, enhanced equity, increased appreciation of healthy food for students, reduced financial hardship and stress for families, opportunities for nutritional learning, and enhanced mana (wellbeing) for all.”

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"International evidence from free school lunch programmes tells us that these gains amplify over time and have a ripple effect on communities and the food system," says Dr Garton.

The authors also stress the importance of providing the lunches to all students in the school. Overseas research from middle schools in New York City has found that extending free school lunch to all students regardless of income improves academic performance across the board. Studies from Norway also suggest the act of eating the same meal together results in increased wellbeing and improved dietary habits for all kids involved.

“Most countries that have school lunch programmes such as France, Italy, the US, India, Sweden, Finland, Scotland and Wales, feed all learners at the schools” says co-author Prof. Tipene-Leach. “There is overwhelming evidence that programmes that target so-called ‘needy’ students, create stigma, and have been linked to lower self-esteem and poorer academic performance."

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