Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Hunger in land of milk and honey

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For years, local celebrities have been popping up on our screens in their safari gear, imploring us to sponsor a poverty-stricken child.

A child in some poor, badly governed, Third World country, of course. The Herald's "Our Hungry Kids" series shows the problem is much closer to home.

Perhaps the most chilling line is buried away in the daily "What you can do" box, recommending we "sponsor a hungry child through KidsCan for 50c a day". This, in the land of Fonterra. In a land where a state-school principal in one part of Auckland can demand every child come to school with a designer-brand, $1000 tablet computer. A land where the Government can throw $1.77 billion to greedy and unwise investors who lost their money to the cult of Alan Hubbard.

Child Poverty Action Group's latest report highlights the impact that 20 years of widening income disparity between rich and poor is having on the victims no one can blame, the children.

It also proposes that for a relatively small price - $8 million to $18.9 million - all primary and intermediate school kids in decile 1 to 3 schools could be provided with a nutritious breakfast, something which will be beneficial both healthwise and educationally. (The variation in costs depends on how much of the food is donated.)

The report notes that a 2002 Ministry of Health survey - the latest information available - found that 17 per cent of children - 83,000 - went to school without breakfast sometimes or always, and that 22 per cent of households with children sometimes or often ran out of food because of lack of money.

The report concludes: "If a few children go hungry in the morning then that suggests a temporary or perhaps ongoing problem within individual families. If hundreds go hungry morning after morning then the problem is structural and can be addressed.

"Yet despite the ubiquity of food insecurity among students at Auckland's decile 1 and 2 schools, children's hunger is often portrayed as one of individual moral failure and stigmatised accordingly." As a result, some parents keep hungry children from school to avoid being stigmatised.

Yet blaming caregivers "fails to address the causes of hunger and denies children the assistance they need".

The causes of increased poverty, and the growth of foodbanks and school food programmes, go back to National's big benefit cuts of 1991.

About 221,000 children, those whose parents are on income-tested social security, are affected.

In 2004, the Labour government introduced a social assistance plan, Working for Families, with the joint goals of confronting the growing problem of child poverty and of giving incentives to nudge beneficiaries into work.

A core incentive was an in-work tax credit payment of $60 a family. But hardly any beneficiaries were incentivised into work and thus missed out on the $60-a-week child poverty-assistance grant.

If these poorest families had been eligible for the in-work tax credit since 2006, they would have shared additional assistance of $2.5 billion.

The Child Poverty Action Group has been battling this legislation through the courts since it was first mooted in 2002. Finally in 2008 it convinced the Human Rights Review Tribunal that its claim that the package was discriminatory against unemployed parents was "real and substantive".

However, the tribunal found the discrimination was justifiable. The group's appeal against this begins on September 5.

Meanwhile, schools in the poorer areas of the country have been forced to cope with thousands of hungry kids turning up each day with Band-Aid solutions. How unsatisfactory relying on charity can be is highlighted by the withdrawal, after five years, of Countdown supermarket's sponsorship of Red Cross' free-breakfast programme.

Next Monday, when kids return from their holiday break to the 61 decile 1 schools affected, they'll discover breakfast is off.

As the action group argues, hungry kids in prosperous New Zealand should not have to rely on charity for, what many of us were brought up to believe, is the most important meal of the day.

Nor should they be the collateral victims in ideological arguments about who is to blame.

The action group points to the success of a Scottish government scheme of breakfast clubs in schools to provide food both to improve students' education and their diets, and suggests we do the same.

For those of us in school before 1967, feeding children for health reasons is hardly a revolutionary idea. From 1937 New Zealand school kids got a half-pint (284ml) bottle of milk each morning, for health and welfare reasons - and also to use up surplus milk.

Apart from the obvious food benefits, a recent study by researchers at the University of Otago showed that those who drank their school milk regularly were 30 per cent less likely to suffer from bowel cancer later in life.

The European Union is now subsidising school milk programmes in 27 member countries and is also backing school fruit schemes. It does it for health reasons.

Shamefully, here in the land of milk and honey, the need is more basic. Hunger.

- NZ Herald

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