More than $15 million has been spent on a school lunch programme for students in the Bay of Plenty since its launch last year.
Bay of Plenty school leaders say the "needed" programme is helping to make the provision of healthy food more "equitable".
There are 104 schools in the Bay taking part in the Ka Ora, Ka Ako programme which was launched in 2020 for schools at a high socio-economic disadvantage.
Lunches are provided at a maximum per child, per day cost of $5 for students in Years 1 to 8, and $7 for students in Year 9 and older.
More than $4m in funding went towards the Government-funded lunch scheme in the Bay of Plenty in term four last year.
And a total of $7.8m in funding was spent in the Bay of Plenty in 2020. ($7,837,009.34).
The programme spend stood at more than $5m in term one,
and in term two more than $1m had gone towards Ka Ora, Ka Ako as of June 7.
According to the ministry's website, roughly 10,000 students in 42 schools across Bay of Plenty/Waiariki and Hawke's Bay/Tairāwhiti were the first to join the programme when it was launched at the beginning of last year.
More than 18 schools across Otago and Southland joined in terms two and three.
Another 51 schools in Bay of Plenty/Waiariki and Hawke's Bay/Tairāwhiti started taking part in term four last year.
The programme was offered to schools and kura "that fall within the highest 25 per cent of socio-economic disadvantage nationally".
Schools decided whether to make their own lunches or outsource to an external supplier.
An interim evaluation report into the Ka Ora, Ka Ako released earlier this month suggested young people were less hungry, eating healthier food and had improved physical and mental wellbeing since the programme was introduced.
It was based on data from 38 schools and almost 2700 students in two regions - the Bay of Plenty and Hawke's Bay. Changes were measured over the first two to three months of the pilot.
"The report shows that food in schools is making a big difference for those students who need it most – and their whānau," Education Minister Chris Hipkins said.
"This backs up what many teachers, principals and parents are telling me, and my colleagues, about the differences they are seeing in the classroom, at home, and to the family budget."
The Education Ministry said planning for the evaluation of the expanded lunches programme was under way.
There were now 875 schools with about 205,000 students receiving free and healthy lunches, and the programme is estimated to have generated around 1980 jobs.
Chicken salad wraps, macaroni cheese, butter chicken, meatballs, burgers and pizza were just some of the lunch options being served up at schools in the Bay of Plenty.
Often, the cooked meals were served with a side of fruit and vegetables to snack on.
Rotorua Intermediate principal Garry De Thierry said he was "surprised" by the ministry figures as the school did not receive the funding directly.
Rather, the ministry worked directly with the school's catering company Libelle.
"Those funds don't come into our account," De Thierry said.
He said they were one of the first schools in Rotorua to take part in the programme.
More than $800,00 in funding had been provided by the ministry for the school's lunches as of June 7.
Popular meals among students this winter included hamburgers, macaroni cheese and soup.
And meals with chickpeas proved less popular, he said.
"You will often find those being picked out."
He said "the majority of the time" there were no leftovers. When there was, remaining food was collected by charity Rotorua Whakaora.
To avoid having surplus food, De Thierry said the catering company made lunches for about 95 per cent of their students.
"Attendance is an issue, and when you are talking about a roll of 740, there is a lot of variation," he said.
"Some parents also make a deliberate choice to provide their own lunch for their children."
A school staff member reported student feedback to the catering company on a daily basis.
"We can help design the regularity of certain meals. We want as many students we can to be having the meals - that's what keeps them energised and reasonably healthy," he said.
The programme was also teaching the students important social skills and removed the stigma for students showing up to school with no lunch.
"The change we have seen is really quite noticeable. It is really good social time, as well as giving them a balanced diet. For some of them - it might be the best meal they are having on that particular day.
"If students have a full stomach we find their energy levels are up, and they more settled."
Rotorua Boys' High School principal Chris Grinter said the school no longer had leftover lunches since they made the switch to providing cooked food to students.
Since term four, the school had received roughly $600,000 in funding towards the programme.
"A key breakthrough for us as a school was moving from a packed cold lunch to being able to distribute a hot lunch. Students enjoy the hot food the most and we don't have leftovers."
The school, which received 1130 lunches each day, used a week-on-week-off rotating menu. They used catering company Compass Eurest.
"Very few of our students don't take advantage of the service now that we've gone to a hot lunch," he said.
Grinter said the programme made a "significant difference" for both staff and students.
"It certainly has addressed the issue of a number of our boys coming to school without breakfast, and although these boys were reluctant to self-identify, providing these lunches addresses that problem.
"The programme is needed because within our city there are many families struggling to make ends meet."
Te Puke Intermediate principal Jill Weldon said the initiative was a "win-win" for students and the wider community.
The Daily Café, based in Te Puke, prepared the school lunches.
"Having lunches provided is a considerable saving for our whānau. Time and money. The best part for me is the equity for our learners," she said.
"Everyone has the same. There are no flash lunches and poor lunches, no big bags of chips or bottles of fizzy for lunch, no lunch envy, no stolen lunches because someone is hungry, no takeaways being delivered."
The ministry had spent more than $180,000 towards lunches at the school since it joined the programme in November.
"As a school, we don't see any money – there is a contract between the MOE and the provider," Weldon said.
The menu changed each term with a three-week rotation.
"Part of this concept is to introduce new healthy foods to our students and build up over a time a taste for these new foods," she said.
"Our kids are now eating many foods they didn't think they would like at the beginning."
Quiche, nachos, wraps and sandwiches, and pasta were just some of the items on their menu. Vegetarian and gluten-free options were available to students with dietary requirements.
Despite tuna sandwiches being an "excellent source of protein", Weldon said it was not a popular option for many students so they made the call to put the meal on hold.
The Daily Café had been "very receptive" to student feedback, and monitored waste from leftover food, she said.
Leftover food was offered to students as seconds, or taken home by students in need. Any extra was collected for a local pig farmer, she said.
She said every student received a free lunch on a daily basis, aside from a small number that had opted out of the programme due to allergies.
Ministry of Education deputy secretary sector enablement and support Helen Hurst said a further five schools in the region were expected to join the programme this year.
"These schools will start serving lunches in term three," she said.
Complaints raised about Ka Ora, Ka Ako
The Ministry of Education has received a total of eight complaints about the programme in the Bay of Plenty.
One principal expressed concern to the ministry about the low level of student engagement.
The ministry said students who rejected the food in term four had not re-engaged. There was a need for community education to get whānau to "better appreciate" the benefits of the programme.
The complaint was ongoing, and the school was implementing a "new approach", while providers were looking to modify the menu after receiving student feedback, it said.
The principal emailed the ministry in March asking to meet to discuss "continued low uptake" despite moving to a new provider.
Two community sessions were held at the school.
"Parents raised concerns to the caterer that the kai is too complex and not recognisable to the kids. The principal shared concerns about the quality and quantity of the food supplied, but also accentuated that the school needs the support of the community as regards to understanding and championing the programme," said the ministry.
The supplier agreed to make revisions to its service to help increase the uptake.
Another Bay of Plenty principal has complained about the quality of the lunches, poor presentation and the portion size being too small for secondary students.
They were complaining as students who had previously consumed these lunches had begun to disengage.
The ministry was working with providers to make menu improvements and carry out monitoring of food quality and quantity.
It said lunch was taken and assessed and "found to be around half of the size recommended for a secondary student". The school also requested hot food options from the supplier.
The ministry met with the supplier on May 5, where they accepted that food was "below acceptable standards". This was after the school expressed further concern about size quality and quantity.
The complaint was ongoing.
Food quality, quantity and poor presentation was an issue for another Bay of Plenty principal, who claimed that fruit received the previous day was "unusable".
During a monitoring visit in March, the school discussed a 60 per cent uptake of their lunches. This complaint was also ongoing.
Three other Bay of Plenty principals had complained to the ministry about the quality and quantity of the food provided. Two parents had also raised complaints.