School is back and, this year, kids attending the 25 per cent highest-need schools will get free lunches through the Government's Ka Ora Ka Ako (Live Well Learn Well) programme. This is an oasis of action in a desert of neglect of children's nutrition. A decade ago, Tony Ryall set a new low for a Health Minister by pulling the plug on the healthy school-food guidelines and the national Healthy Eating Healthy Action initiative. Subsequent Health Ministers have fiddled with mirages since.
But will this $220 million new programme deliver? And deliver on what? Pre-Covid, PM Jacinda Ardern and Education Minister Chris Hipkins started a pilot in 42 primary schools aiming to feed hungry kids. When the Ministry of Health became engaged, it insisted on healthy lunches — it wanted the children to be nourished, not just fed.
Then as part of the post-Covid economic recovery package, the programme was hugely ramped up with an aim to provide lunches to more than 200,000 students by the end of 2021. Additional expectations aim to not only reduce the number of hungry kids and improve nutritional health, but reduce family hardship and food insecurity, increase local employment, improve child well-being, promote school attendance and lift educational attainment.
They could also have added greenhouse gas reduction, if the lunches were designed to be sustainable as well as healthy. However, Government thinking has not gone that far. The actions announced with the declaration of a climate emergency late last year and in the newly released report of the Climate Change Commission did not even mention sustainable diets. Amazing oversights given food systems, including our diets, contribute more than half New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions.
However, even without sustainability, the list of expected outcomes from a lunch programme is long. Is that plausible? I think so — if the programme is designed to achieve such results. Food lies at the centre of our physical, mental and social wellbeing. A well-nourished population is the foundation of a productive, achieving, healthy population.
Two concerns are apparent as the programme gets into full swing this year — who provides the food and is the programme being measured on whether it delivers on its promises?
Most schools don't have on-site facilities to make lunches, so the rush is on for contracts with external providers. The initial contracts went mostly to large catering firms, but this raises doubts about whether the "local school food ecosystems" needed to bring the multiple potential benefits to communities can be provided. Big business is more transactional (get funding, feed kids) than locally transformative.
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Transformation is needed for food systems, because at the moment they are designed to provide livelihoods and profits by feeding people who can afford it, while also creating enormous harm to environments and health. Food systems can deliver on health, equity, environmental sustainability and prosperity all at once if designed for these outcomes. The school programme is potentially a game-changer for local food systems.
Pre-Covid, about one in five children lived in households with moderate to severe food insecurity, meaning the family often lacked money for food. This is disgraceful for a wealthy country and the lockdown shot these numbers through the roof. Multiple ad hoc programmes tried to address the problem of hungry kids, but we have no idea how successful they were because they were never evaluated. In some developing countries, unmonitored school-feeding programmes, aiming to alleviate undernutrition, contributed to obesity issues.
The second of my concerns is the lack of programme evaluation. With high potential for benefit (and some harms), a long list of expected impacts and a short funding period (two years), it needs close evaluation before the Government decides to continue, extend or modify the programme. The evaluation of the pilot in 42 schools only just started when Covid hit, but needs to be expanded to match the huge expansion in size and expected outcomes. If you want to know if things work, you measure them.
The need for national food-systems transformation is so urgent that we should grab the opportunity Ka Ora Ka Ako provides, to show how well-designed food ecosystems can deliver in multiple ways at the local level.
Boyd Swinburn is Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the University of Auckland