It turns out the way to a child's brain is through their stomach.
Raumanga Kindergarten - up for the Excellence in Governing: Awatea Award category in the Prime Minister's Education Excellence Award this year - says food is part of the secret to providing top early education in a materially deprived area.
Head teacher Shelly Budgen had led the Raumanga team for 10 years. She said since free meals were introduced six months ago, attendance had been far more reliable, with pupils helping to prepare lunches ranging from quiche to beef chop suey.
Raumanga Kindergarten was up for the award on behalf of Northland Kindergarten Association, which oversaw 22 Northland kindergartens, with many being either fees-free or costing less than $14 a week.
"Attendance can be a huge issue, having no fees and providing food, that was key for getting families to bring their children here."
Four-year-old Rehaan Baker-Singh listed his favourite activities as "digging in the sand and making the pizza".
About 90 per cent of the pupils were Maori and the kindergarten had access to a tikanga adviser, as well as a speech language therapist.
It also made every effort for siblings from a family to all be able to attend at the same time.
"It's a whanau-based approach. That also helps with attendance, if mum can bring both children together," Ms Budgen said.
All finalists get certificates and category winners received $20,000 plus a professional development package.