A parent in a low decile school sums up the impact of school food programmes for children in three words: "They love school."
"They want to go to school each day," the parent told Massey University evaluators of the KidsCan programme, which provides muesli bars, fruit pottles, bread and other food discreetly through teachers to 20,000 children a week in 189 low-income schools.
An Auckland University trial of breakfast programmes in 14 schools, reported earlier in this series, found the schemes made no statistically significant difference to children's school attendance, learning or behaviour.
Massey's Professor Michael Belgrave, who supervised the KidsCan evaluation by two social work master's students, said the strongest outcome of the KidsCan scheme seemed to be bonding children with their schools.
An evaluation of the Government's fruit-in-schools scheme by the NZ Council for Educational Research found that free fruit gave children "more positive views about school".
That evaluation said stronger bonding with school, in turn, would have long-term effects for the students' health, educational and life achievements.
"This suggests that Fruit in Schools is assisting in creating a generation of students who are more aware of healthy choices overall, and are engaging in related behaviours."
Professor Belgrave said he was not surprised by the Auckland University trial because the KidsCan evaluation was also "ambivalent" about the immediate impact on individual student achievement. But it found a clear impact on the schools' culture.
"What for us is the major standout thing about these programmes is just giving the school and the school culture a much greater ability to relate to students, with the kids being happy, so it kind of reinforces the school as a safe place," he said.
Half of the schools surveyed for the Massey evaluation believed that attendance had improved because the parents knew their children would be fed at school. Some parents previously kept their children at home if they did not have any food for lunch.
None of the teachers, parents or children interviewed felt there was any stigma attached to KidsCan food, because most schools gave it to any child who requested it with no questions asked.By Simon Collins Email Simon