Feeding New Zealand's hungry children will take one step forward and one step backwards when children return to school next week.
About 640 low-decile schools will join 182 existing schools getting free school lunches under a $220 million Government scheme.
But at the same time Fonterra has axed its free milk programme for 1300 primary schools, replacing it with targeted assistance to 1300 schools that have joined the KickStart breakfast scheme plus providing milk to food banks and other social services.
Independent charity KidsCan says many children are still going hungry and is launching a new $350,000 appeal today asking donors to buy food, jackets, shoes and sanitary products for needy children.
Principals' Federation president Perry Rush said the impact of Covid-19 on both family incomes and student achievement would still be "front and centre" in principals' minds when school resumes.
"The school lunches are fantastic support for young people's learning. It's wonderful to see that," he said.
But the Government initiative has forced both Fonterra and KidsCan to rethink their roles in schools.
Fonterra Brands NZ managing director Brett Henshaw said the number of schools opting into the free milk scheme, reported in 2017 to be 70 per cent of primary schools or about 1360 schools, had declined by about 4 per cent a year to 1307 schools at the end of last year.
In the same period schools in the KickStart breakfast programme, a joint scheme using Fonterra milk and Sanitarium Weet-Bix, increased by 4 per cent a year to 1300 schools, with 100 new schools joining this term and more expected later this year.
Only about half of the free milk schools (726) are also in KickStart, which is available to secondary as well as primary schools and is likely to be reaching the most needy children.
Henshaw said Fonterra was also now working with the NZ Food Network to supply milk to foodbanks, shelters, community and iwi groups.
"We expect to donate at least 4 million serves of dairy to the NZ Food Network this financial year," he said.
KidsCan chief executive Julie Chapman said she had asked Colmar Brunton to survey schools on the extent of "food insecurity" to guide how to use funds that may no longer be needed for schools in the Government's free lunch scheme.
KidsCan will continue providing food for breakfasts and snacks to schools in the Government scheme if they want it - and Chapman said 160 of the schools already in the lunch scheme last year have ordered KidsCan food this year.
"We've seen a slight drop in the ordering of hot meals, which are mainly lunches, but everything else has remained the same," she said.
Mother-of-four Toni Szekely, who has three children at Coastal Taranaki School in Ōkato, said she was especially grateful for KidsCan's sanitary products for her two teenage daughters.
Her husband was working on an oil rig in Australia but could no longer commute across the Tasman after the border closed last March and has not been able to find another job.
The family had to move out of their rented house in Ōkato when the roof started leaking, and their accommodation supplement was cut by $80 a week when they moved out of town to an old farmhouse because the supplement limit is lower in rural areas.
"We are on a benefit, and get topped up by Working for Families, but that doesn't even cover the majority of our bills," Szekely said.
They borrowed from family members to pay the house bond, and plan to borrow from Work and Income to pay nearly $200 for the children's school stationery.
"But then I'll have to pay that back at whatever they decide per week. That's money out of our budget to pay for food," Szekely said.
"There are a couple of farms on this road. My husband has asked if there's any relief milking going, so we have put the feelers out to let farmers know he's looking for work. It doesn't matter what it is, it doesn't matter if it's fulltime or part-time."
Work and Income food grants jumped by 46 per cent over 2019 figures in the first quarter of last year and by 147 per cent in the second quarter, but were only 16 and 17 per cent above 2019 levels in the last two quarters of the year.
Grants and loans for school costs dropped from 56,880 in 2019 to 49,982 last year, but most grants are made in January and February which was before Covid hit last year.
Auckland University nutritionist Professor Clare Wall, who led a positive evaluation of Fonterra's free milk scheme in 2018, said she hoped the end of the scheme would be offset by the expansion of Government free lunches and KickStart breakfasts.