Senior Cabinet minister Parekura Horomia is under fire for suggesting that the reason some children go to school hungry is that they want to stay "trim".
Mr Horomia made the comment in Parliament yesterday in response to a question from Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia.
Mrs Turia began by saying almost 20,000 children a week needed feeding at school because of empty cupboards at home, and she asked what the Ministry of Education could do to respond to the educational disadvantage people were experiencing because of escalating child poverty.
Mr Horomia responded: "There are a host of reasons why students and pupils don't have breakfast - they're trying to stay trim, or else there may be poverty in the house."
The second part of his answer was drowned out by the reaction of MPs astounded at the first part.
Mr Horomia, who is Associate Minister of Education and answered the question because Education Minister Chris Carter was away, tried to continue and later said again that there were several reasons pupils did not have breakfast.
Act leader Rodney Hide intervened and suggested Mr Horomia correct his answer because he surely didn't mean what he had said.
Mr Horomia did not correct his answer but argued child poverty had reduced dramatically under Labour.
Outside the House later, Mrs Turia said she felt sick at the "almost obscene" suggestion that children were hungry because they were dieting to slim down.
Julie Helson, director of the KidsCan charity, said she was "absolutely floored" by Mr Horomia's comments. "We feed 7000 kids a week and some are starving. It's not because they want to be thin, it's because they don't have access to food."
She said 12,000 were on the KidsCan waiting list, showing that families were increasingly struggling to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, a professor in paediatrics said the 20,000 New Zealand children living in poverty were not worried about their waist size.
Professor Innes Asher works at the University of Auckland department of paediatrics and at the Starship children's hospital. She is also on the management committee of Child Poverty Action Group.
Dr Asher said Mr Horomia's comment would be accurate for a small number of children but out of the 7000 that are being fed by KidsCan charity every week, there could be just one going without food to stay trim.
"No one has done any studies of the particular point he is raising and I think that would be a waste of time. The key thing is to put funding into enabling families to feed their children," Dr Asher said.
She said the bottom line was that parents on benefits simply didn't have the money to cover basic needs including going to the doctor, adequate housing and food.
"Twenty per cent of New Zealand children are living in poverty and a number of those are going to school hungry," Dr Asher said.
- With NZHERALD STAFF