You have to feel sorry for Fonterra. Even with a role model as wholesome as the All Black captain to announce it was offering free milk to all New Zealand schoolkids, this stellar act of generosity hardly made the news. Perhaps next time the dairy giant should organise a celebrity punch-up instead. Between Hobbits.

For those who missed it, Fonterra is expanding its free Milk for Schools programme, now on trial in Northland, to include all 350,000 primary school children in 2000 schools throughout the country.

At Fonterra's annual meeting on Monday, chief executive Theo Spierings estimated that if there was full takeup, the programme would cost $10 million to $15 million a year, which is surely the largest single community investment by any New Zealand company.

But on TV3, Mr Spierings played down the charity angle. "We say no, this is a business decision - it is really something like advertising and promotion." In other words, a marketing tool. He says New Zealanders, the world's largest exporters of dairy products, are "not drinking as much milk as we used to" and where better to start than with the kids.


However, he added that milk was "an important building block" for good nutrition and Fonterra wanted New Zealand children to grow up drinking milk because it was good for them. Which makes it a win-win situation for the company and the kids.

With a product as healthy as milk, this is one child-directed selling ploy that is not going to upset the nutritionists or the educators or, for that matter, parents.

If there's any criticising to be done, my finger is pointing in the same direction as Hone Harawira's. While praising Fonterra, the Mana Party leader, and MP for Te Tai Tokerau, the electorate which is benefiting from the trial, said, "Feeding society's hungry children shouldn't be left to well-meaning companies and charities. Feeding the 80,000 kids who go to school hungry is Government's responsibility."

Quantifying the size of the decline in local milk consumption is difficult. Figures quoted by "experts" vary markedly and Fonterra is not forthcoming. Certainly there's been a major decline in child consumption since the free milk in schools programme, started in 1937, was abolished in 1967. The end of government milk price fixing in 1976 doubled retail milk prices overnight, which didn't help. At the beginning of the 1980s, prices doubled again. Then, in 1985, consumer price subsidies for milk were abolished.

A recent paper by Otago University researchers Moira Smith and Louise Signal highlighted the effect of the price increases on young children.

"For children, milk is the predominant source of dietary calcium but only 38 per cent of children consume milk daily and 34 per cent weekly. Disturbingly, 17 per cent reported they did not drink milk at all, or if so, less than monthly."

The worst affected were the poor, in which Maori and Pacific people were over-represented. The authors noted that cheaper "fizzy drinks" were the substitute, leading to problems such as obesity and rotting teeth.

Fonterra says an evaluation of the year-long Northland trial by Associate Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu from Auckland University showed a rise in milk consumption at home and at school, with "a 28 per cent increase in the number of students who reported drinking milk five or more days a week".

The number of children drinking milk twice or more each day increased from 66 per cent to 77 per cent.

New Zealand is not alone among developed countries in having declining milk consumption. In the United States, the world's biggest producer of dairy products, whole milk beverage sales are less than half those of the early 1980s. Like New Zealand, milk in the US has to compete with cheap fruit juices and carbonated drinks.

Reflecting Mr Spierings' comments, Tom Gallagher, CEO of Dairy Management Inc, a farmer-backed promoter of dairy products, said: "If we have 55 million kids going to school each and every day and we don't present them with a product they like and comes in a handy container, we have lost them for a lifetime."

In New Zealand, with our history of free milk in schools being an integral part of the old welfare state, it's impossible to think of a revival of the scheme purely in terms of a Fonterra marketing ruse. It's also an embarrassing reminder to both the Government, and ourselves, that tens of thousands of our kids need this milk to help stave off their hunger.

A Ministry of Health survey from 2002 found that 17 per cent of children - 83,000 - went to school without breakfast either sometimes or always, and that 22 per cent of households with children sometimes or often ran out of food because of lack of money. A Herald investigation last year found at least 40,000 children were being fed at school by charities and the demand was growing.

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English, who chairs a Cabinet committee on poverty, while playing down the size of the problem, admitted to the Herald's Simon Collins, after a recent series on child poverty, that if kids are arriving at school hungry "it's the obligation of the rest of us to do something about that".

Fonterra is leading the way in honouring this commitment by providing the drinks. Now it's up to Mr English to front up with the meat and veg.