A quarter of primary and intermediate pupils in poorer Waikato areas go to school hungry, researchers have found.
Poverty Action Waikato said the region was one of New Zealand's main food producers but about 25 per cent of students at decile 1 and 2 primary and intermediate schools - more than 1800 children - were going to school with "some degree of food need".
The research showed that food shortage was sorely felt among children at Ruapehu schools where one in three students on the region's roll have breakfast at school as part of the Kickstart programme, compared to 13 per cent in Hamilton schools.
Researcher Anna Cox said about 75 per cent of the decile 1 and 2 primary and intermediate schools in the Waikato had breakfast programmes.
But more schools are on a waiting list to get the programmes and it was a challenge to find staff and volunteers to manage and facilitate their delivery.
It was also difficult to reach all students in need of food.
"The feelings of shame that accompany food insecurity can keep children away from food programmes and away from school," Ms Cox said.
KidsCan director Julie Helson said the figures were upsetting but consistent with nationwide statistics the organisation kept.
She believed child poverty had worsened since 2010.
"Two years ago they said 200,000 New Zealand children were in poverty, and now the figure is 270,000 - that's a huge increase."
KidsCan provides food for 4500 children at 223 schools nationwide, but Ms Helson said there was a waiting list of a further 100 schools needing assistance.
"That's not just with food, it's with basic hygiene items, shoes and raincoats," she said.
The research showed schools were generally enthusiastic about teaching food-related life skills such as cooking and gardening but a lack of facilities and a crowded curriculum were hampering this.
Rhode St School principal Shane Ngatai said his school provided breakfast with the help of Sanitarium, Fonterra and Tip Top.
But the involvement of up to 30 people in the community was crucial to the programme's success.
"I think each school is unique in its own community," he said. "For us it works but I wouldn't say it would work in every community."
The researchers said many low income households were likely to be experiencing "food insecurity" and "food stress" as well as having to cope with the stigma and shame of not always having enough to feed their children. They said a low-income family would need to spend an unachievable proportion of their disposable income to afford a basic healthy diet.
The researchers recommended the government develop a policy that would improve the incomes of low-wage earners and beneficiaries.
In need of a feed
Research shows that of Waikato's 42 decile 1 and 2 primary and intermediate schools 1810 students go to school with some degree of food need.
That is 25 per cent of the region's 7156 students.
The Ruapehu District has 481 students at 14 schools, or 33 per cent of the school roll population, participating in the KickStart programme.
75 per cent of decile 1 and 2 Waikato schools have a breakfast programme.
35 per cent of decile 1 and 2 Waikato schools have a lunch programme.
Source: Window on Waikato Poverty Food and Waikato School Communities.