School principals are parcelling up and delivering food packages as Covid-19 isolation and sickness leaves children of the Hauraki-Coromandel hungry for their regular free lunches.
The morning Weet-Bix at breakfast club and free lunch provided by the healthy school lunches programme at schools on the Hauraki Plains, Waihi and Paeroa is the difference between families going hungry, say principals.
"There's usually very little left of the kai that's delivered to school because often there's little in their lunchbox and I'm seeing a huge amount of food being consumed by our kids," said one principal.
In the Waikato, 24,577 students at 118 schools receive the Ka Ora, Ka Ako healthy school lunches every day in a programme rolled out last year to reduce food insecurity.
Principals Chris Patel and Moana Te Moananui Ikinofo have rolled their sleeves up to make personal deliveries.
Goods include Ka Ora Ka Ako school lunches from the Ministry of Education, care parcels and donations from charity Kidscan, local churches, businesses and individual donors, and organisations like Te Korowai, the Hauraki Māori Trust Board and Tirohia Marae.
Waihi College - which is also sending children home with uneaten school lunches for their siblings - is trialling using unused raw ingredients to create meals to deliver to isolating families.
The school has an agreement with the Salvation Army to take any uneaten school lunches and redistribute them to needy families in the community, or they are sometimes given to another local primary school.
"It's a shame that we have to, but everyone knows you can't educate hungry kids."
One school had up to three-quarters of its families away sick, while staff absences at Waihi College led the school to roster home learning days for the year groups over the past few weeks.
Principals say Covid isolation and sickness on top of rising costs in rent, petrol and food is leaving many families stressed.
An example was a family forced to shift into emergency housing half an hour's drive from their school because they couldn't afford the only alternative - a rental in Thames that was $650 a week.
"It's tough out there for families," says Kopuarahi Principal Chris Patel. "I know for a fact a lot of our families are under stress."
She believed there was a misconception that a lot of people "needed to get off their backsides and help themselves".
"If you're a family with two people on a minimum wage ... middle income is now in a really precarious situation and people don't seem to realise that.
"It makes me incredibly sad that we've lost our empathy for a lot of families."
You get a Covid crisis, you need to know who your neighbours are, so there's actually a real place for schools being the hub of communities especially in rural areas.
Helping these families through was the arrival at school to 'breakfast club' options of Weet-Bix and milk, pots of yoghurt and fruit supplied by Kidscan.
The Ministry of Education's school lunches are boosted with donations from several kind community people tapping into networks of local supermarkets such as Pak'nSave Thames, and even eggs from hens kept at schools and vegetables grown in community gardens like in Ngatea.
"When I've dropped these off to families, I know that's been really appreciated," said Chris.
Since last year's lockdown, schools have become increasingly important community hubs not only for families but elderly too.
"What is Kopuarahi? The hall isn't it, the school is. When schools close, what's the common meeting ground? When the going gets tough, you know enough people to help each other out.
"If we don't keep some connections we're actually stuffed. You get a Covid crisis, you need to know who your neighbours are, so there's actually a real place for schools being the hub of communities, especially in rural areas.
"It's an interesting dynamic that schools are in."
Kerepehi School in the tiny settlement of Tirohia has a roll of 76 students.
Staff member Tania Ikinofo created a telephone tree and rings elderly residents in the community to check their wellbeing, after the school contacted extended whānau to find out who lived nearby and what their circumstances were.
"Working together makes a big difference," says Tania.
Elderly were invited to a morning tea after the first lockdown, which Tania says was warmly received.
This school received food parcels from neighbouring Tirohia Marae, Hauraki Māori Trust Board which were looking after the school community and elders.
They deliver the food and essentials like sanitary products and hand sanitiser received from government-funded, national and local charitable groups and churches, including kind community folk who donate food from their gardens or out of their pockets.
"We've done that from the first lockdown, and we're keeping an eye on our whole community.
"It's all contactless, they come through one entrance and we've had food boxes on a step and they drive out the other. Women's Refuge has looked after us, and we've had vouchers and food from Pak'nSave added to the packs, and a lovely lady from a Ngatea church giving food, and another who regularly delivers to families.
"It's been really good because we're small communities. I think that's the difference."
Nationally as at March 2022, more than 45 million lunches were delivered in 921 schools, or 211,000 learners.
The Ministry of Education says given the current rate of delivery, with one million lunches being supplied each week, 62 million lunches will be delivered in around June of this year.