Friday, September 19, 2014

Food in schools (again)

A recent column by Gareth Morgan raised the question of whether providing food to children at school was 'a good idea'. I had resolved to ignore this because, well, it's Gareth and his world is different from that of most of us. I am, however, going to point out why I disagree with Gareth mainly because people who I know sit on the left of the political fence appear to agree with Gareth's column. Of course they are well within their rights to do so, but I'd like to offer up an alternative view.

As the three regular readers of this blog know I have done quite a bit of research into feeding kids at school, including academic research, and talking to children and teachers. My view is also informed by having hungry kids turn up on the doorstep; when this happens, one deals with the immediate need first then worries about what might be behind it.

The first point is that Gareth is partly right: food in schools does not deal with the deeper issue of poverty although it can improve children's nutrition (we'll come back to this). But it is not always monetary poverty that is the issue, although lack of money is by far the biggest problem. There is also the poverty of time, primarily among parents who work long and/or unsociable hours, or multiple part-time jobs. Schools report children turning up at 7 in the morning because parents are working, not because they have an 'expectation' that the school will feed them. But food in schools campaigners have never argued that food in schools will deal with underlying issues, just that it deals with the immediate need.

Pondering the issue of poverty, Gareth then plugs his universal basic income idea. In New Zealand the welfare state provides a universal safety net, and this should ideally enable families to feed themselves nutritious food. But it doesn't - beneficiary parents report not having enough money for food, let alone good food. They aim to fill their kids up, and this is usually achieved by buying cheap, fatty, salty food. This is something we could remedy should we want.

Focusing on the possibility of a UBI glosses over the fact that many hungry children come from households where parents are in work. Like many other developed economies, New Zealand has a growing problem with poverty among those in paid employment, something governments are keen not to talk about. Food in schools will not tackle these deep structural issues but the children shouldn't go hungry while adults squabble about who gets what.

From the perspective of improved nutrition, happily, quality food in schools has been shown to improve children’s nutrient uptake as well - and something is always better than nothing. One of the provisions in Mana’s Feed the Kids Bill is that it requires school food meets specified nutritional standards. This is to pre-empt Food and Grocery Council members flogging sugary crud in our schools.

Studies have also shown that breakfast at school reduces the risk of diabetes in later life. Now Gareth knows as well as I do that we not only have a huge wave of baby-boomers about to swamp the medical system, we also have a generation of young fatties whose early onset diabetes will start to swamp the health system at about the same time as the baby-boomers retire. If we can forestall this looming inter-generational conflict now in some small way, shouldn't we do so? Again, food in schools is not a silver bullet, but it can help.

A key paragraph in Gareth's column states that food in schools 'doesn't work'. What bit doesn't work? Dealing with the immediate need of hungry children? Improved nutrition? Improved behaviour in class (try arguing THAT with a teacher)? Improved social atmosphere in the school (the social aspects of school breakfasts are as important as the nutritional aspects)? Or improved academic results? It's true that internationally there is not much government evaluation of their own programmes but that doesn't mean they 'don't work' (the Scottish research is worth reading in this regard). Academic evaluations show mixed results, but much of that depends on the nature of the study. The New Zealand research done by the School of Population Health found that while they could not show improvements in academic results, children who received food at schools had better attendance. This is surely a positive outcome for those children? Again, one of the features of the Mana Bill is that it makes provisions for monitoring and evaluation of programmes. In a country where evaluation of social policy is rare, this is a welcome feature of the Bill.
What about the cost? The Mana Bill estimates the $100 million Gareth quotes, but this is for breakfast and lunch in decile 1-3 schools. In other words, this is a big ask. Child Poverty Action Group estimated a rather more modest approximate $30 million, and suggested that much of the administration could be bolted on to the existing Fruit in Schools programme (which partly deals with the claim New Zealand has no delivery mechanism for a universal food programme). The real cost is likely to fall somewhere between, and will depend in large part on Fonterra's continuing role in partnering with schools to provide breakfasts in schools.

The rabbit-out-of-the-hat moment in Gareth’s column is the section on Rhode School in Hamilton. I've sat through Shane Ngatai droning on about how amazing his school is, and there is no doubt he has achieved good things. However, as any principal will tell you, every school is different, and what works at one may well not work at another. I wonder, for instance, how easy it is to get 'the community' involved when there are high rates of transience among residents or parents are too busy working to be involved in their children's education? The bigger problem, though, is that it relies on the 'principal as hero' model of education. In other words, whether children are at a school where there is a garden, whether they learn to cook the food they have grown etc etc depends entirely on the priorities and motivation of the principal.

This should not have to be the case. If we think it is important for schools to teach kids to grow their own food and eat healthily, then ALL schools should be funded to do just that if they wish to do so (some don't). If we think it's important that the immediate effects of poverty should be dealt with in the interests of children's education, then schools should be funded to do that, too.

Where Gareth and I will (probably) continue to disagree is whether food in schools creates an expectation that parents don't have to feed their children. It doesn't, in my experience. CPAG found that in schools where breakfast was provided between 10-20% of children availed themselves of breakfast. The rest were - surprise! - fed at home, by their caregivers. And so what if it does? Perhaps we need to think about this differently. I recall speaking to one mother who sent her child to school for breakfast because there was nothing in the house, but the fact that there was food available for her child at school made her feel as though she, as a parent, was being supported, and that her child was welcome. Wouldn't it be great if all parents felt supported? Food in schools might be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, but when you've fallen, you're probably glad it’s there.