New Zealand has been slow to consider in any serious way the issue of school lunches and meals. We have been slow to recognise the opportunities that school lunches must compensate for health and nutrition issues for those who for one reason or another would benefit from a good feed at least once a day. And lunch is when, supposedly, all young people are at school and when the provision of a hot meal, of nutritional value and served in warm pleasant facilities would be of value.
The United States recognises children from families as being “eligible for a school lunch/meal”. In fact, eligibility for a school meal is a key measure, and they know with some precision who those students are. Household incomes below 130% of the poverty level make the cut! Families eligible for SNAP or TANF (both cash assistance schemes) are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. I have been in US schools and seen this in operation – it works well and makes a difference. And the meals are served in fit for purpose facilities.
In England and Scotland, all infant state school pupils (those in Reception and in Years 1 and 2) can get free school meals during term time – it is available but not compulsory. If a child qualifies for school meals, they remain are eligible until they go right through their primary and/or secondary – an extension being brought in next year.
Australian kids are much like Kiwi kids and they either bring their lunches from home, or they get food from a canteen or tuck shop. In Australia parents ordering can do the ordering for their kids or give them money to buy sandwiches or snacks. In both countries the provision of lunches in low-income schools has been slow to make an appearance. But it is now happening.
In New Zealand and in Australia there is another category of student, those who go without, those who experience hunger, or who rely on food choices that do not provide the nutritional boost that a better food choice would.
While the descriptions of the burgeoning and relatively new provision of meals in NZ school are heartening when the result is a healthy and nutritional contribution, they also can sometimes disappoint when the enthusiasm to deliver seems to have out stripped the resources available. There are also questions to be asked about the quality – surely the reported lunches consisting of two pretzels and a muffin are not true! And the stories of cold meals served up late are a worry.
The responsibility for the quality of meals in schools should be spelt out clearly and be subject to a set of clear nutritional values approved by either or both Ministries of Education and Health. There should be professional supervisors who oversee the preparation and delivery of the meals. There would be people in the community who would welcome employment in such a role. I recall the great work done by the Dinner Ladies in the school my sone attended in a village in Essex, UK years ago. The provision of food for school students is the responsibility of the government rather rely exclusively on volunteers.
School meals are too important to be a project for students – let’s mobilise the communities to contribute this critical area.