Simon Collins is the Herald’s education reporter.

Charity van feeding 800 in Hamilton

Catholics bishops join call to feed hungry lower decile pupils in 'land of plenty'.

Claire Ryan. Photo / APN
Claire Ryan. Photo / APN

New Zealand's Catholic bishops have joined a call for a national food programme in schools after seeing a doubling of numbers requesting food on suburban streets in Hamilton in the past two months.

St Vincent de Paul Society manager Mike Rolton said "Fullfill" food vans operated by the Catholic charity were now feeding almost 800 people a week across five Hamilton suburbs, and smaller numbers in Tauranga and Rotorua.

"We've gone from 60 a night to 150 a night [in Hamilton] in the last two months," he said.

Catholic Bishop of Hamilton Denis Browne said all Catholic bishops were concerned about the problem and endorsed a bill put forward by Mana MP Hone Harawira to provide free breakfasts and lunches in all decile 1 and 2 schools.

"We should all hang our heads in shame to think that it's our children who are hungry in this land of plenty," Bishop Browne said.

The bishop went out with the van in Hamilton recently and described it as "an eye-opener".

"The van has become easily recognisable. They would turn a street corner and initially the kids would come flocking to them, and after a while I'd see the parents coming out as well," he said.

Volunteers hand out sandwiches, soup, eggs and Milo. Food is donated by local supermarkets and by Catholic parishioners who have been asked since the recession began to bring one item of food to church each Sunday for hungry families.

Mr Rolton said 78 per cent of the food went to children, mostly in families on welfare, but he also saw growing numbers of working families queuing for food.

"A lot of it is having their hours reduced, so instead of the husband working 50 or 60 hours a week he's back down to 40, and they can't survive," he said.

Major Campbell Roberts of the Salvation Army said he did not know of any other service in the country that was feeding families in the suburbs, but he was not surprised at the need.

The Salvation Army has also seen a 22 per cent jump in food parcels handed out in Auckland and Northland in the past year, which he put down to rising rents for families already on the maximum accommodation subsidy.

Salvationists, the Anglican and Methodist churches, Plunket, Barnardos, the Principals' Federation and the Royal NZ College of General Practitioners are among 24 groups backing a community campaign this month to muster support for Mr Harawira's bill, which is expected to get a first vote in Parliament next month.

College of GPs president Tim Malloy, a Wellsford doctor, said support for the bill was part of doctors' commitment to eliminate social inequities which led to poor health.

"There is no question that nutritional foods are more costly than processed foods," he said. "This bill is an attempt to begin to address the issue."

Every Child Counts co-ordinator Deborah Morris-Travers said the bill was supported by 60 of Parliament's 121 MPs including the Labour, Green, NZ First, Maori and Mana parties.

But a spokesman for United Future MP Peter Dunne, who holds the balance of power on the issue, said Mr Dunne opposed the bill. "It is far too simplistic to be an adequate solution to what is a real problem," he said.

"But the whole issue requires further discussion."

Feed the Kids Bill

* Proposes free breakfast and lunch for all decile 1 and 2 schools.

* Estimated cost: $100 million a year.

* Backed by 60 out of 121 MPs.

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