Big companies have won most of the contracts to provide free school lunches next year, despite ministers' initial hopes that the scheme would create jobs for small-scale community groups.
The social enterprise Eat My Lunch and the University of Canterbury Students' Association, a registered charity, are the only non-commercial operators that have won contracts to supply school lunches - to 19,412 students in 53 schools - from the start of the new school year.
Six companies have won the tender to feed 58,362 students at another 212 schools.
Hamilton-based Montana Catering has won the contracts to feed 17,707 students in Waikato and Manurewa schools, the multinational Compass Group will feed 11,600 from Taranaki to Christchurch, Libelle Group will feed 10,414 from Kaitāia to Timaru, Downer-owned Spotless will feed 9081 in parts of Auckland, Kāpura (Wellington Hospitality Group) will feed 6352 in Porirua and the Hutt Valley, and the Virtual Cooking Company (FED) will feed 3208 in Māngere and Ōtāhuhu.
The $220 million expansion of the school lunch scheme was announced in the May 14 Budget using Covid-19 funding and aims to feed about 200,000 students in the 25 per cent of schools with the highest levels of socio-economic disadvantage.
Ministry of Education reports provided under the Official Information Act show ministers told officials "to prioritise local employment and the requirement for suppliers to set a wage floor (living wage) to those employed through the programme".
The living wage of $22.10 for all staff was included in the tender, but the documents show that officials decided within a month of the Budget to "use primarily large-scale providers" because of the tight timeframe of starting from the first term of 2021.
"In order to expand at the pace required, we intend to utilise primarily large-scale providers that can service the majority of schools and kura in the programme nationwide," officials told Education Minister Chris Hipkins on June 11.
"There will be a limited number of smaller-scale and community-based providers in some schools and kura where reach is a barrier for larger suppliers, or schools and kura choose this option.
"However, utilising smaller-scale providers alone for the expansion is not feasible in the time available."
Officials said using large-scale providers would "allow us to roll out the programme at the pace required", create "potential economies of scale" and provide "some job creation in cities and large towns where suppliers are based".
But they also noted disadvantages, saying the approach "does not foster community involvement and risks overriding local community initiatives already operating".
The eight providers that have won group contracts to supply 265 schools plan to employ an extra 720 to 768 people to prepare and distribute the lunches.
Schools also have the options of managing their own lunches or choosing suppliers from an approved panel in each region. By October 9, 94 schools had opted to be self-managing and 234 opted to choose from the approved panels, which have not yet been announced.
All group suppliers except Libelle will prepare all the lunches in centralised kitchens and deliver them to schools in mainly plastic packages for each student for fixed prices of $5 per student in Years 1 to 8 and $7 in Years 9 to 13.
Libelle, which runs tuck shops in about 80 schools nationally, will prepare lunches inside each school in about half of its 56 new schools, mainly in rural areas such as Northland and Ruapehu District.
The tender required "environmentally friendly solutions" for both left-over food and packaging. Kāpura, for example, plans to give left-over food to the Wellington City Mission and Kaibosh Food Rescue and will recycle containers at Hutt-based Flight Plastics.
Whitney Joblin of Montana Catering, which will employ 150-180 people to feed the biggest number of students under a new "BiteLab" brand, said Manurewa schools would be supplied from the company's Penrose kitchen and schools in Hamilton and South Waikato from its kitchen in Te Rapa.
The privately owned company, which started with Hamilton's Montana Restaurant in 1965 and has no connection with overseas-owned Montana Wines, already caters for Auckland Grammar School, St Peter's School in Cambridge and Auckland and Waikato Universities.
Eat My Lunch, which has the next-biggest number of students, already delivers free lunches to needy children at 77 schools funded by its paying customers on a "buy one, give one" model.
General manager Kellie Burbidge said all students at 51 of those schools would now get free lunches through the Government scheme, and Eat My Lunch would keep running the existing model in the other 26 schools and add more from its waiting list.
The enterprise is advertising 189 jobs and is about to announce a new site for a bigger Auckland kitchen. It will also feed 2195 students in Wainuiomata from its recently-opened Wellington kitchen.