Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Feeding hungry kids in New Zealand

Yay for Labour! They have finally had the spine to move on from the housepainting sickness beneficiary and announced they will introduce a programme to provide food for children in decile 1-3 schools. This follows closely on the heels of the Mana Party's private member's Bill providing food in decile one and two primary and secondary schools. It is a policy supported by the Greens, and is one of the recommendations of the Children's Commissioner's Expert Advisory Group's solutions to child poverty. We particularly like Mana's Bill because it includes provisions for monitoring and evaluation of programmes, something notably missing from any current government social policy initiatives.
The research basis for the food in schools policy has largely been provided by Child Poverty Action Group's 2011 report which included interviews with principals from schools that run breakfast programmes. (Disclaimer: I was involved in this research.) The usual facile and ill-informed objections to the policy are already appearing in blogs and newspaper comments so here's some actual facts to provide some balance.
  • New Zealand is an outlier as regards providing food in schools. The whatsforschoollunch blog lists countries that provide lunches to kids. They are from all around the world and include countries much poorer than New Zealand. All these other countries seem to have moved past nonsense about 'dependency' and just gotten with the job of feeding their children.
  • This is not about beneficiaries making bad choices. This is largely about parents who simply do not have sufficient disposable income to provide breakfast. These are not necessarily beneficiaries - many are working parents in low-paid insecure jobs with irregular hours. Working parents with inflexible hours may also have to leave kids to fend for themselves in the morning. Surely it is better that they can go to school where they can be fed properly and are safe?
  •  Over the years I've talked to parents who have kept children at home because they are too ashamed to send them to school with no lunch, or not having had breakfast. This places an awful burden on parents. Wouldn't it just be better to provide something for the kids in a stigma-free environment and have them at least attend school? This might even start to deal with the so-called long tail of underachievement we as a nation seem to be constantly beating ourselves up about.
  • Given the benefits, this is a cost-effective investment in our future. Any country that can invest billions in roads that do not even meet the most basic benefit-cost requirements cannot plausibly argue a few million to help kids learn is too much to bear.
  • We seem to be quite obsessed with the idea that providing food directly to children will create 'dependency' and merely encourage parents to behave badly. Here's some news for you, people: parents who are smoking dope at 7.30 in the morning and not feeding their children breakfast are not going to change their behaviour just because a right-wing blogger thinks they should be punished by forcing their children to go hungry. Forget those roof painting, dope-smoking deadbeats and try to break the cycle by giving their kids a positive experience at school. Who knows? They may end up being well educated, questioning, critical citizens. On the other hand, maybe that's not what governments in the 21st century really want after all.