Labour's new education policy includes $40 million in pledges to feed all children in low-decile schools and to extend a reading recovery programme to cover all schools.
Party leader David Shearer outlined the policies in a keynote speech in which he targeted stomachs and minds but stayed silent on whether he would scrap National Standards.
He said the 211 schools on KidsCan's Food for Schools programme showed children were still going to school hungry - and Labour would work with community groups to provide free food to all 650 decile 1-3 primary and intermediate schools.
"I hear people argue that this is the responsibility of parents," he said. "We can debate that endlessly, but it won't change this reality: tomorrow morning kids will still turn up to school hungry."
The meal-a-day proposal was championed in a recent Child Poverty Action Group report. About 40,000 children are already fed at schools by charities, but a Ministry of Health survey estimated at least twice that go to school with no food.
Estimates of the cost of that ranged from $3 million to $20 million a year - but would ensure every child had one healthy meal a day. "For those who say the country can't afford this, I have a clear message for them," Mr Shearer said. "We can't afford not to."
He said National had let itself be "distracted" by National Standards - but he did not say whether he would scrap the programme. Labour would introduce a "report card" on each school - something Education Minister Hekia Parata said would be difficult to do without the data National Standards would provide.
Mr Shearer also turned on National, saying last year the National Government spent more than $500,000 on sport funding for private schools - but only $317,000 on groups providing food in low-decile schools.
He said the Reading Recovery programme was "gold standard" and had a success rate of more than 80 per cent, yet was not universally available - only 59 per cent of low-decile schools had it, compared with 73 per cent of high-decile schools.
Labour's goal - expected to cost an extra $20 million a year - was to lift the proportion of 6-year-olds doing Reading Recovery from 14 per cent to 20 per cent - about 5000 more children a year on top of the 11,000 who currently did it. Labour also wanted to introduce a similar "maths recovery" programme for 7 and 8-year-olds.
Mr Shearer will visit his own old school - Papatoetoe Central School - today to talk about the policies.
Prime Minister John Key said the Government already funded food in schools, but he agreed more was needed. However, he did not believe every low-decile school wanted or needed the help for every child.
"There are many families who can provide that lunch. What we need is a mechanism by which, if a child is hungry, then there is food provided."
He said it was difficult to take Mr Shearer seriously on Reading Recovery, given National Standards were the "flag" for assessing whether a child needed reading recovery. "It's a bottom line that every child needs to be able to read and write properly."
* One meal a day for every child in a decile 1 to 3 primary or intermediate school. Cost: $3m-$19m a year.
* Extend Reading Recovery programme to all schools and put 5000 more 6-year-olds on it annually. Cost: $20m a year.
* Plain English report on schools.
* No class size increases.