In My Opinion

Dita De Boni is a Herald business columnist

Dita De Boni: Hungry for more than food

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Why stop at giving kids breakfast, when there are bigger issues - like getting them through the school gate

Illustration / Anna Crichton (with apologies to Eric Carle)
Illustration / Anna Crichton (with apologies to Eric Carle)

It's time to give Prime Minister John Key a (small) slap on the back for acknowledging the obvious - that too many children come to school hungry - and being part of the solution through the food in schools scheme announced this week.

His more conservative supporters aren't happy, and no one should be too overjoyed about it. At best, we are minimally topping up the nutrient deficiencies of children whose parents are impoverished and don't have the wherewithal or the time to make better food choices.

At worst, we are papering over severe problems in households that already receive taxpayer funding to ensure their children are fed, clothed and sheltered (not to mention all the cash funnelled into social services to attend to these dysfunctional families).

It would be nice if our leaders could openly admit that while some people are desperately poor, others just don't do the right thing by their children.

But to say that out loud invites being shot down as a heartless rich prick. Instead, politicians must blame no one for the sad reality of malnourished children - which is all one needs to know to be assured that in 10, 20 years, there will still be hungry children tramping through the nation's schools.

Would that all the nation's children were, in fact, tramping through schools. But what we know from Paula Bennett's 2011 Green Paper for Vulnerable Children is that some 30,000 or so children throughout the country are truant from school each day.

So thousands of kids won't get the free grub on offer because they won't be there.

So, as a country, how serious are we about ensuring all our children get the chance to take part in the generally excellent state education provided?

Because we've already said we're serious enough to provide said education, subsidised (to a greater or lesser degree) for 13 years. We'd now like to ensure that kids get at least one proper meal a day so they can concentrate at school.

Are we prepared to pay for still more initiatives to ensure they get through the school gates? (More, that is, than just paying the justice system to prosecute the parents of chronic truants?) There are plans overseas that do just that. A highly successful anti-poverty programme in Mexico, called Oportunidades, seeks to pay parents for making the right choices for their children, including getting them to school and taking them for health check-ups and vaccinations.

The programme has also been introduced in 25 countries where poverty stunts educational opportunity and has proven a worthwhile investment.

The Mayor of New York, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, also tried this idea using his own and other private funds. His three-year pilot programme, Opportunity NYC, also used cash incentives to ensure families sent their kids to school, but middling results meant it did not become part of public policy.

In other parts of the US, cash incentives for school attendance have really worked: KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) rewards children themselves for things such as good results, attendance, and a positive attitude. These programmes turn children on to school with only token payments - a worthwhile fillip to educational investment.

Conservatives might say such plans are the welfare state gone mad; liberals may find them condescending. But like food in schools, they acknowledge that some households operate less than optimally, for whatever reason, and seek to alter the outcome. Viewed in this light, is paying our truants to attend school each day really so crazy?

- NZ Herald

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