Last month the Health Coalition Aotearoa urged the Government to double its Healthy School Lunches Programme.
The group - largely made up of health providers and academics - would like the scheme to reach half of New Zealand schoolchildren (years 1-13) rather than the one quarter it currently feeds in schools at the low end of the Ministry of Education’s Equity Index.
Their polling says most New Zealanders would support an expansion but it’s silent on the thorny matter of cost.
The reality is that the lunch programme, free to all 224,000 students across the 981 schools in which it’s offered, is a hungry hole in Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ bread and butter agenda.
And, starting in this week’s Budget, it will take a whopping $274 million a year (the Treasury’s forecast operating cost for the current fiscal year’s lunches) just to keep the programme running at current strength.
In the Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update in December, the Treasury warned that the lunches are funded only until the end of the calendar year 2023, and therefore constitute a risk to the Government’s economic and fiscal forecast.
“If the Government confirms an extension or expansion of the programme, additional ongoing funding beyond that currently provided for will be required,” the Treasury advised.
That means an awful lot of chicken salad wraps are coming home to roost, and the Government will either need to cancel or rein in the lunch programme (unlikely, especially given the looming election), or find the money to keep it going, either from new spending allowed for in its $4.5-billion Budget Allowance, or through cuts elsewhere.
Given the billions required to fund the cyclone recovery, and Prime Minister Hipkins’ recent pre-Budget promise to provide both relief to households from upward spiralling prices and, concurrently, to effect Government belt-tightening, the lunch bill will land at a tricky moment. But it didn’t have to unfold this way.
The problem is that, notwithstanding some $44m from Budget 2019 for the original pilot project, the lunch programme has been paid for to date from the Government’s notional pot of Covid-19 emergency money (all debt): the Covid Response and Recovery Fund, which was closed this time last year.
It was always evident that funding school lunches from the Covid pot was undisciplined. This was especially clear in early 2021 when emails from the Treasury to the Minister of Finance Grant Robertson suggested the more than $527m in operating funds he planned to charge to the emergency fund for the lunches didn’t really qualify as Covid resurgence costs, and that funding through the ordinary budget process would be more suitable.
The advice fell on deaf ears, and the matter of the ongoing expense was kicked down the road. We’ve now caught up to it.
But the current structure of the lunch programme does leave Hipkins with sensible belt-tightening options, if he has the mettle to pursue them.
Considering the evidence the Ministry of Education (MoE) has gathered on the programme, there are obvious ways to trim it, without depriving the schoolchildren who actually need the meal.
First, however, Hipkins and Labour would have to drop the dubious presumption that the benefit of ameliorating the stigma of giving food to needy children is greater than the cost of feeding all the children in a given school (which is the current, though untested, rationale for making the programme universal in the schools it covers).
After all, “food insecurity” appears to be the main problem the Government is tackling through the lunch programme, and according to the New Zealand Health Survey of 2021/22, some 12.5 per cent of children live in this precarious state, that is: in households in which food runs out sometimes or often.
Twelve and a half percent of all kids is fewer than 100,000 of our 815,000 school kids (likely considerably fewer since the health survey includes pre-schoolers).
And a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests we could feed lunch to every one of these hard-knock school kids (twice over) for the money we’re currently spraying in an untargeted way across entire student bodies.
But to justify a change, the Government would need to be honest about what the lunches are actually achieving.
In 2021, then Education Minister Chris Hipkins optimistically opined that “providing a nutritious lunch is one of the few education-relevant interventions that show a positive impact on enrolment, attendance, completions, and learning.”
Though this is a commonly held view, there is, as yet, no evaluation data in New Zealand to suggest that any of it is true (international evidence is quite mixed).
In 2021, a Ministry of Education-commissioned evaluation of younger school students on the programme found some benefits, along the lines of: the kids ate more vegetables and fewer processed foods at lunch, and they felt modestly more full after lunch (when compared to kids not in the programme). It did not consider attendance.
A more recent evaluation (October 2022) looked at secondary school students and found that the programme has had no statistically meaningful effect on attendance.
Neither evaluation made any attempt to measure the programme against academic achievement, school enrolment, or completions.
The 2022 evaluation, like that of 2021, found the kids on the lunch programme ate more vegetables at lunch and in addition, there were general feelings of greater wellbeing and of better physical and emotional functioning, as well as improved concentration, the students receiving the lunches reported.
Unsurprisingly, the benefits tended to be small, marginal or non-existent for the average student, and more pronounced for those kids who actually go without food at times. The universal element of the programme, it seems, has little measurable value (at least so far).
This year, as the tide of Covid cash (yes, debt-funded) retreats, the Government faces some tough choices: among them, to keep or to curb that spending, and whether to speak plainly to the public about it in an election year. But one home truth remains as fast and unforgiving as ever: there is no free lunch.