More than 80,000 children are going to school hungry - more than five times the number estimated this week by a charity providing food to the needy, health researchers say.
A new analysis of a 2002 Ministry of Health survey of children's nutrition has found that 40.8 per cent of Pacific Island children, 22.9 per cent of Maori children and 7.7 per cent of European children aged 5 to 14 sometimes or always ate nothing before school.
Public health consultant Rob Quigley said that on 2006 census figures, those numbers added up to 83,250 children - one-seventh of all children in the age group.
That is more than five times the 15,000 "hungry children" estimated earlier by KidsCan, a charity which feeds 5000 primary school children a week.
Early yesterday Prime Minister Helen Clark dismissed that figure as "extrapolated from an anecdote" and said there was no evidence to back it up.
KidsCan provides snack bars and fruit pottles at 61 low-income schools throughout the country.
Auckland's Wesley Primary School has turned down an offer by Tasti Products, brokered by National Party leader John Key, to provide cereals and muesli bars. Principal Rae Parkin said the school did not need a breakfast club.
But Mr Key, who has called for businesses to donate food to needy schools, cited a 2005 survey at nearby Wesley Intermediate School which found a quarter of its 160 pupils were not getting breakfast - or lunch.
The manager of the Christian Life Centre's trust, Lili Lemalu, said it had started a breakfast club at the school that regularly attracted up to 40 pupils.
"They are pretty much the same children every day," she said.
"We get there by about 7am or 7.10am and they are there. There's a handful of them already there."
Her trust also runs breakfast clubs at Royal Rd School in Massey, Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate in Otara, Southern Cross Campus in Mangere and Meremere School in South Auckland.
Another church-based group, Angelslight, provides breakfasts at four schools in Papakura and Takanini, serving 60 to 80 children in its biggest programme at Takanini, which has a roll of 440.
Co-ordinator Bronca Fox has been contacted by other schools with hungry children from as far afield as the Wairarapa.
"I even had someone from Remuera who thinks it's needed there.
"She said, 'We get forgotten because it's a rich area'."
Some low-income schools, such as Randwick Park School in Manurewa, supply bread and spreads in every classroom so teachers can feed children who come without lunches.
Associate principal Felicity Oberlin-Brown said an average of 90 of the school's 810 pupils also needed KidsCan food every day.
The principal of a predominantly Maori rural school of 60 pupils near Rotorua, who declined to be named, said most of her parents were on welfare and the number of children coming to school hungry rose from a handful after benefit day to around 10 just before the next benefit was due.
Her teachers provide lunches out of their own pockets.
The ministry survey showed that 30.8 per cent of boys and 33.5 per cent of girls in the poorest fifth of families throughout the country did not eat breakfast at home.
In contrast, only 5.6 per cent of boys and 9.8 per cent of girls in the richest fifth skipped breakfast.
However, the figures also showed that the cause of pupils skipping breakfast was only partly due to poverty: age had a lot to do with it.
Fewer than 10 per cent of 5- and 6-year-olds went without breakfast, but this rose to 18.8 per cent of boys and 30.9 per cent of girls in the oldest age group, 11 to 14.
The president of the New Zealand Educational Institute, Irene Cooper, said teachers would always put the needs of children first and feed them if necessary.
However, it should not be their responsibility.
"I know of teachers who have bought bread, Milo, milk and provided regular services out of their own wages," she said.
"That is inappropriate.
"At the end of the day, the encouragement should always be for families in the community to take care of the children."