Low-income families are facing tough trade-offs when it comes to managing schooling costs.
Children's Commissioner and Hawke's Bay paediatrician Dr Russell Wills said many students at low-decile schools are coming to school ill-equipped to learn.
"Feedback from low-decile schools is that children often don't have stationery, or full uniforms, or sports equipment ... what that means is it limits the kids' ability to participate."
Dr Wills said as housing costs increased and incomes didn't, families were having to make tough choices.
While there was "no reliable data" on the scope of the problem, the Government's evidence was based on Ministry of Social Development surveys and feedback from principals.
"Principals in low-decile schools are telling us the parents are having to make really difficult choices; between paying the power bill or buying a uniform." Many low-decile school students were also coming to school hungry, which was "a very serious issue," Dr Wills said.
At the start of the school year, Napier Family Centre's funding and communications manager Kath Curran told Hawke's Bay Today more people were seeking the professional budgeting advice required in order to secure an advance from Work and Income, to assist with uniforms, stationery and other expenses.
"Our social workers see many families whose households struggle at this time of the year to meet school costs. Many people feel embarrassed that they cannot afford to have the necessary gear [children need] to start the year well."
Tukituki National MP and Commerce Minister Craig Foss said the Government's food in schools programme was attending to the issue of underfed students.
The region had always had a larger proportion of low-income families than many others and people had underestimated the debilitating effects of droughts in the region, Mr Foss said.
"We've been through a tough time, and we've been through tougher times in the Bay. We're only just coming out of it."
Tukituki Labour candidate Anna Lorck said the Government's food in schools programmes weren't getting to the root of the issue.
"I think it's a start, but we need to be working on families feeding their children before they come to school."
Schooling costs, such as uniforms and school lunches, had a "compounding effect," Ms Lorck said. "It's a raw, harsh reality for many, many families. It's an extremely challenging time and they are struggling."