The Free Lunch Debate: Can Schools Fight Both Hunger and Addiction?

Students from Yendarra School having lunch with their teacher Tamryn Takai. Photo / Justin Latif

A director in South Auckland has rejected the government’s school lunch program, saying it is doing nothing “for the mana of the people.” Others say it is simply an example of the village raising the child. Justin Latif reports.

In 1975 Milton Friedman, hero of the free market economy, titled his collection of essays There’s No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. His assertion: the welfare state comes at the cost of dependence.

Similar arguments seem to explain the decision of Susan Dunlop, principal of the Ōtara-based Yendarra School, after consultation with parents and staff, to deny the opportunity to participate in the free school lunch program Ka Ora, Ka Ako.

A core value of the school is “rather than giving a man a fish, give him a hand,” Dunlop told The Spinoff. “We don’t give things away for free because we think it doesn’t do anything for people’s mana.”

The school has its own lunch initiative. In 2008, he launched a campaign urging parents to provide students with only healthy foods, alongside a “no soda” policy instituted a year earlier.

Dunlop says it turned out to be a huge success and as a result, “99.9% of parents” chose not to participate in the free meal program when it was suggested in a survey at the end of the year. last year.

“When I started here we were a typical decile 1a school,” she said. “There was no healthy food at school, and instead there were two liter coke bottles and a bag of crisps and that was it. We had hungry children. They were behaving. so bad and attendance was shocking so we had to do something and I think as managers we get paid to make changes, ”she said.

There had been “no backlash” to the policy, she added. When a new child enters school, parents are given directions on what to buy, and over time the kids start bringing full lunch boxes that include fruit and a sandwich.

“We often have stupid parents. But the stories we hear all the time are of parents going to the supermarket and their kids telling them what they can and can’t put in the cart,” she said.

Dunlop is concerned, however, that the school does not have much needed funding which is instead earmarked for the lunch program.

“We are saving the government a surplus of $ 1 million over three years, but we are at a disadvantage by helping ourselves,” she said.

School lunch for a student from Yendarra school in Ōtara.  Photo / Justin Latif
School lunch for a student from Yendarra school in Ōtara. Photo / Justin Latif

The Case for Wider Change

For Sir Douglas Bader Middle School Principal Jerry Leaupepe, such considerations must be weighed against broader economic opportunities.

“Schools could walk in waters that are not our domain and we have to avoid parents parents,” he said.

“I can’t play martyrdom because of my personal point of view and then deny a child something, that’s not okay with me. And there’s always a gold coin somewhere with a program like this. . “

Although he believes only a handful of families would struggle to provide lunches at his Māngere-based school, he says the program may have a wider economic impact for the region.

“Wherever I can, I try to make sure we use the local,” he said.

“I made sure our cleaner is a local guy, our uniforms are provided by a local company, a local guy makes all of our impression, so we saw this as an opportunity to keep things as local as possible.

“We’re going to turn our entire canteen into a space that allows a team to get paid to be here and cook lunches for the kids. They still have to go through a little more extensive process, but by the fourth quarter, I think we can hopefully get them to. “

“We need a village”

Clarissa Mackay launched the Eat Right, Be Bright campaign for free school lunches in 2017, and her advocacy not only helped change government policy, but also saw her recognized by the Obama Foundation as an emerging leader. in the Asia-Pacific region.

She says international research shows that when a free meal program is implemented effectively, it reduces child poverty and increases the economic infrastructure of that community.

“When you look at the UK and most of Europe, they’ve been doing it for so long that it’s not seen as [disempowering], it’s just seen as an alternative way for the ‘village’ to support the child, ”she said.

She believes the program should not be seen just as a free catering service, but as another way to increase income in low-wage areas while providing new opportunities for local businesses.

“The alternative to this program would have been for the government to give each child $ 5 per day, per week, increasing benefits for example,” she said.

“For a family of five, the government is basically increasing their disposable income by $ 25 a day, but this program is reaching a much larger group of people. [not just beneficiaries but also those low wage families]. So, even though your point of view is that you take the responsibility away from families, economically, this program essentially puts $ 5 per day per child in the parents’ pockets, to be used elsewhere. “

Mackay says the program seems to be working well so far, but she would like to see some consistency in the way it is executed.

“Each school had to choose a provider, so in some cases it created an amazing program that works really well and in other areas it really disappointed the kids, so some consistency in those providers, in terms of quality. food and food safety is what I’m looking for now. “

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