Several primary schools in Horowhenua have said they support the recently announced government initiative to trial free school lunches.

From next year, around 5000 primary-aged children across 30 schools in Rotorua and Hawke's Bay will receive a free lunch five days a week as part of the policy's trial.

The programme expects to extend out to 21,000 children and 120 schools once the policy is fully rolled out in two years' time.

Levin East School principal Rikki Sheterline said he believed the scheme had merit and believed the majority of schools would opt in, given the opportunity.

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He said making sure children had enough to eat directly affected their ability to learn.

"If they're not fed they're behind the eight-ball," he said. "If the trial goes well I look forward to seeing it rolled out around the country."

Levin East School principal Rikki Sheterline
Levin East School principal Rikki Sheterline

Sheterline said there was bound to be criticism by some who believed it would remove the appropriate responsibility from parents to feed their children, but that did not influence his own opinion as principal.

"Once they walk in the gate it's my job to make sure they're okay," he said.

Fairfield School principal Alasdair Maclean said he would "absolutely" support the programme, and having students learning on a full stomach was far by preferable to them being hungry.

"I support lunches going into schools," he said. "It supports students and communities, it aids their learning and helps them focus."

He said he saw a need for the scheme in Horowhenua and that there is a "significant difference" in the learning abilities of children who are properly fed.

"It's a positive move."

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Levin North School principal Moira Campbell said she felt strongly about the concept.

"I applaud the recent government announcement regarding trialling the provision of free lunches in schools and can't believe that some sectors of our population would rather see children go hungry," she said.

"Our focus is on children, and any initiative which enhances their life chances and ability to engage with learning we will embrace with open arms - food would help!"

Campbell questioned whether some people believed children with no food in their homes should be penalised and said that in her experience as principal, most parents and caregivers are struggling to make ends meet and pay utility bills, with the likelihood that the grocery budget suffers as it's the only thing that can "give."

"I cannot think of any parents in our school who are not doing their absolute best for their child with very limited financial means for some," she said.

"Perhaps providing lunches would free up some of the stretched dollar and relieve a little stress."

She also outlined that providing lunches would ensure children would be eating the same food together.

"There [would be] no 'lunch envy' or children being embarrassed by the perceived quality of the food they have," she said.

"Children eating together - which it would seem that some sectors of society don't grasp - is also an important social time."

"We have a breakfast club, as do many schools, and provide breakfast for anyone who turns up. Parent volunteers oversee preparation, and children of various ages talk to each other, play board games and generally have a really warm, settled start to their day.
We ask no questions about who or who should not be there - our focus is on the kids."

"As a society, wouldn't it be amazing if we could stop blaming and have a little empathy?" she said.

Levin School principal Paddy Sannazzaro said the government should be commended for the announcement of the trial of free lunches for students.

"A number of other countries have been providing lunches for school-age students for a number of years now," he said.

"This would ensure that healthy options for lunches are had, a positive step for the nutritional needs of our students."

However, one principal raised a concern over the potential impact on teachers.

Coley Street School principal Peter Kemp said although he felt the concept of the scheme was good, it may involve more workload for already-stretched teaching staff in having to administer it.

"Anything that supports children's wellbeing and learning has to be good," he said.

"Unfortunately the ramifications on school staff is often not thought through and yes, it can be another avenue for parents to renege on their parental duties. Is the next thing for schools to offer an evening meal?"

He said his school currently offered breakfast one morning a week, but could address any food issues that arise around lack of food in the morning and kids not having lunch.

"I don't have the answers but it does involve teachers spreading themselves even more thinly and addressing wellbeing rather than concentrating on teaching and learning," he said.

"If we have not got the wellbeing right then the learning won't occur."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Children's Minister Tracey Martin announced the policy at a primary in Rotorua last week as part of the government's Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Rotorua for an announcement on free lunches in schools. 29 August 2019 Rotorua Daily Post photograph by Stephen Parker RGP 30Aug19 -
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Rotorua for an announcement on free lunches in schools. 29 August 2019 Rotorua Daily Post photograph by Stephen Parker RGP 30Aug19 -

Ardern said the idea behind the free lunches policy was "pure and simple – do we want our kids to go hungry?"

"You simply can't learn distracted by an empty stomach."

Ardern said that was the reason the government was rolling the programme out to the children in New Zealand who need the support the most.