Key Points:

More than 5000 children under the age of 2 admitted to Auckland's Starship Children's Hospital each year are severely malnourished, says a leading paediatrician.

Dr Cameron Grant, associate professor of paediatrics at Starship Hospital and lecturer at Auckland University, has begun a pilot project on early childhood healthcare, looking into micronutrient deficiencies and malnutrition in children under 2.

His findings follow National Leader John Key's appeal to help the 80,000 hungry schoolchildren in Auckland and his Food in Schools project, which Education Minister Steve Maharey has dismissed as "Tory charity".

The collaborative project with Starship, Auckland University and Tamaki Primary Health Organisation, shows that one-quarter of Auckland children aged 6-23 months are iron-deficient and New Zealand children are two to 10 times more likely to be hospitalised with pneumonia than those from other developed countries.

The study also shows diseases from micronutrient deficiencies are more common among Maori and Pacific Island children from lower socio-economic households. Vitamin D and zinc deficiencies lead to an increased risk of pneumonia and diarrhoea.

"I'd say about 10 per cent of Auckland children under the age of 2 are deficient in vitamin D, which can also lead to rickets," Dr Grant said.

"I have definitely seen it with a number of children and I would say it's getting worse."

Dr Grant's study shows more children are being hospitalised with pneumonia and other chest infections. From 1988 to 1995 there was an average 5 per cent increase in children aged 14 or younger hospitalised with such conditions. Maori were hospitalised at higher rates than non-Maori in every age group.

"The problem is some of these kids get stuck," Dr Grant said. "Their nutrition is not that great to start off with and so they get infections. Then they don't feel well so they eat less and the body doesn't get what it needs.

"If a child is malnourished when he or she is under the age of 2 I don't see how that could dramatically change by the time they reach school age. Poor nutrition definitely affects how well children are able to learn."

Key says these findings confirm what he has known for a long time. He says while the problem partially stems from parenting, it is also largely a financial issue.

"Money is running out for people on the benefit and so people are obviously compromising their food in a sort of pecking order, where electricity and shelter are the first issues of importance."

Maharey said his earlier comment was made solely about Key's actions involving Wesley School.

"No one is denying that there is an issue here," he said. "What I made my comment about was John offering Wesley School something they didn't want or need, simply because it is a decile 1 school and he was assuming they needed help."