MP backing needed for free food plan

By Mike Dinsdale

A Whangarei child poverty group is urging all political parties to support a bill by Mana Party Leader Hone Harawira to provide free food for all children in low-decile schools.

Mr Harawira's Education (Breakfast and Lunch Programmes in School) Amendment Bill was last week drawn from the Parliamentary Ballot to be considered by MPs.

The bill, affectionately dubbed the "Feed the Kids Bill" proposes providing free breakfast and lunches for all children in decile 1 and 2 schools around the country.

Whangarei Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) spokeswoman Sherry Carne said if adopted, the bill will make inroads into Northland's appalling child-poverty statistics.

Earlier this year, Ms Carne prepared a report for CPAG - "Empty Food Baskets: Food Poverty in Whangarei" - which looked at poverty in the district.

It found that at least 1793 children in Whangarei - 33 per cent of students attending the decile 1-4 schools - received food assistance weekly, with some getting food more than once a week.

Since the report, the Whangarei Food for Life Centre has started giving out a free school lunch once a week at Manaia View and Otangarei schools. The centre now provides about 500 free meals every week.

Compounding that Ms Carne said, was news last week that Northland's unemployment rate had soared to 10 per cent, the highest in the country. As well, 70 per cent of Far North students are in decile 1-3 schools.

"This bill would make a real positive impact on the lives of our children. The Food for Life programmes and Whangarei Kai for Kids initiative show that the community is doing its bit. It's now time for the Government to do something that's effective," she said.

"It is very important our children are adequately fed so that they can learn effectively, reach their potential and participate in society. With an increasing unemployment rate and inadequate welfare benefit rates, the Government needs to shoulder the responsibility for ensuring that children in decile 1 and 2 schools have breakfast and lunch."

She urged all parties to at least support the Feed the Kids Bill to select committee stage.

Mr Harawira said everybody would agree that the Government's first priority should always be our children. "Since I put my bill into the ballot back in August, Labour has come out in support ... the Children's Commissioner's Expert Advisory Group on Child Poverty has recommended food in schools as an immediate solution to escalating child poverty."

"Providing meals to children at schools has also been strongly supported by groups like the Child Poverty Action Group and school principals and teachers."

- Northern Advocate

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