Labour claims win as govt commits to new free school lunches model

The Labour Party is claiming a win for its campaign that the government commit to keeping and funding free school lunches.

The Ka Ora, Ka Ako programme – which feeds about 230,000 students a day at just under 1000 schools around the country – was up for review as part of this month’s Budget.

On Wednesday, associate education minister David Seymour announced primary students already benefiting from free school lunches will continue to do so in the same way for the next two-and-a-half years, while older students will shift to an alternative model.

Seymour said the government had found about $107 million a year in savings in the programme, some of which would be used to provide free morning tea and lunches to pre-schoolers.

Asked to explain how the government reached $107m in savings, a spokesperson for Seymour said Labour had budgeted $323m for the school year, but the Ministry of Education forecasted the actual cost would be $342m due to food inflation and population growth.

Under the Coalition’s revised progamme it will cost $234.8m for the 2025 school year – a saving of $107m on what the previous government’s programme was estimated to cost. The government was budgeting $3 per lunch, Seymour said.

Of those savings, $4m will be repurposed to provide meals for some early childhood centres. Seymour said the government was “delivering on our commitment to treat taxpayers’ money with respect”.

But Labour education spokesperson Jan Tinetti said Seymour had failed to get the sweeping cuts he wanted.

Seymour had previously told RNZ funding could be cut by up to half.

It is unclear what the programme will look like in size and funding two years from now, following a review by an advisory group.

“Labour has been calling for the government to commit to fully funding the school lunch programme and I am relieved to see David Seymour hasn’t got the cuts to the programme he campaigned on,” Tinetti said.

Parents will be able to choose to opt-out of the programme. Tinetti, a former school principal, said that was a worry because it might lead to “stigma” for those “kids who need the lunches”.

“It’s also ironic that this funding is time-limited, given the government’s current aversion to that. If they matched their own rhetoric, they’d have funded it from baseline today.”

Labour leader Chris Hipkins told reporters Seymour had designated himself the “nutritionist-in-chief”.

“It’s disappointing that he seems to think he knows what’s better for kids’ nutrition than the experts do – particularly as he does not seem to know that hummus is made with chickpeas rather than with rice.”

Hipkins said Seymour was putting tax cuts ahead of students’ wellbeing.

“Bearing in mind that for some of these kids, it will be the only hot meal they get in a day, I think making sure that we’re doing that properly is a good thing.”

Green co-leader Chlöe Swarbrick ridiculed Seymour’s libertarian credentials, accusing him of micro-managing the make-up of school lunches.

“What do you think woke food is?”

Educators react to news

Until the end of this year, the school lunches programme will remain as it is for the 235,000 students in more than 1000 schools receiving it.

A new interim delivery model will kick in next year, which has temporary funding for two years, to allow time for a full redesign of the school lunch programme before any more money was dedicated.

The Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) has also welcomed the news, and the expansion of the school lunch programme to include thousands of pre-schoolers.

President Chris Abercrombie said it was surprising the government was taking two years to review the lunch programme.

“This government has been extremely critical of other governments for being slow with reviews and initiatives – two years seems a very long amount of time for this particular review,” he said.

“Schools need certainty and work should be focused on expansion of the programme – the more children and young people who can be guaranteed lunch each day, the better.”

NZEI Te Riu Roa, the union for educators across Aotearoa, said the news was positive, but it was vital for educators, students and the wider community be included in any redesign.

“It cannot be a one-size-fits all approach dictated by commercial imperatives rather than those who know what’s really needed on the ground,” NZEI president Mark Potter said.

“The best practice model in the current programme appears to be in-school catering where there is the opportunity to build learning into the programme and catering staff are integrated into the school community, with the ritual of students eating together promoting social cohesion and positive behaviour.”

Any extension should not be at the expense of other students missing out, Potter said.

“It appears the government is cutting an important contribution to the health and learning of students in years 7-13, by introducing a targeted approach for this age group which we know can create social stigma for students opting to receive a school lunch.”

Lunch supplier will ‘absolutely’ have to lay off staff

The owner of a Taranaki company that provides hundreds of school meals every week fears she will have to lay off staff under the government’s cost-cutting reforms.

Belinda Philp’s Soul Kitchen currently provides Opunake High School with 300 meals each day and she said each costs about $4.20 to make – more than the government’s target of $3.

Soul Kitchen has five full-time staff and one part-timer and Philp told Checkpoint while they were still thinking through the ramifications, they would “absolutely” have to lay off staff.

“And that hurts my heart, I don’t quite know what to do with that.”

She said the move would “drastically” cut the number of lunches Soul Kitchen supplied.

Students got a hot meal every day through winter, and were given sandwiches in the warmer months, although Philp said these were not as popular with the students.

While the government claims the new system will allow it to make savings through bulk purchasing, Philp was also not sure if providing a full lunch for $3 was possible.

“I’m not sure how food suppliers will be able to get the price down like that, without compromising quality.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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