South Auckland schools want to start getting free lunches sooner than planned because of mounting stress on families losing their jobs.
Schools put the request in a Zoom call last week between Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and South Auckland community leaders in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak in the area.
And Ministry of Education deputy secretary Katrina Casey says the ministry is considering it.
"We are exploring how we can enable schools and kura across all regions, including South Auckland, to provide lunches to students as soon as possible," she said.
The schools also asked Ardern to consider giving a financial incentive to young people who have quit school to get paid work to return to school next year.
Manurewa High School principal Pete Jones said 50 to 60 of his 800 students aged 16 or over have not returned to school since the first Covid lockdown because they have had to get paid work to support their families after parents lost their jobs.
Several schools have set up foodbanks or hotlines for families to get help with food and other essentials.
Social enterprise Eat My Lunch, which is delivering lunch ingredients to 1700 homes of Auckland students who normally get lunches at school, said some schools reported a 50 per cent jump in children needing lunches after the first lockdown.
"Particularly in this lockdown, we are receiving emails and requests from families that we don't normally give to and even outside of those schools," said co-founder Lisa King.
Nationally, the KidsCan charity said it is now feeding 40,000 children, up from 30,000 before the first lockdown.
Chief executive Julie Chapman said: "The need for food was continuing to increase pre-Covid, but the need has kind of exploded due to job losses."
The Government's May Budget gave $110 million a year for the two years to June 2022 to provide free school lunches for 200,000 children in the poorest 25 per cent of schools out of Covid response funding.
But its current plan is to start with only 148 additional schools next term in the areas where the scheme was first piloted - the Bay of Plenty, Gisborne and Hawke's Bay.
Other regions, including South Auckland, were not due to get free lunches until the start of next year.
Peter Parussini, the chairman of the board of Southern Cross Campus in Māngere, said he asked Ardern to bring the scheme forward.
"She thought it was a great idea and would look at it," he said.
Southern Cross has opened a helpline for families needing food, counselling or other support.
Jones said Manurewa High School already feeds 15 to 20 per cent of its 2000 students thanks to KidsCan and Kiwi Harvest, and gave out 80 food parcels when the latest lockdown started.
"It's an absolute need. Our kids don't take it if they don't need it," he said. "For those kids that are hungry, they are not in a fit state to be able to learn."
At nearby Alfriston College, principal Robert Solomone said KidsCan hot meals fed between 50 and 300 students once a week.
"We would really love to have a hot meal every day," he said.
"We were very pleased that the Government decided to do something, but then found that they were starting on the East Coast. We would love to get a programme running as quickly as possible.
"I know for a certainty that some of our families are struggling because we have a pātaka [foodbank] as well. It started off as a shelf, then a cupboard, and now it's a whole wall."
Rowandale Primary School principal Karl Vasau said Eat My Lunch normally fed 70 to 100 of his students and has delivered boxes of cereals and fresh ingredients to their families so they can make their own lunches at home during the level 3 lockdown.
"So I'd love anything about bringing [the Government scheme] forward," he said. "Our school will welcome it with open arms."
Principals' Federation president Perry Rush, whose own school Hastings Intermediate is one of the 151 schools that will get free lunches next term, said he hoped Ardern would consider accelerating the rollout of the scheme.
"This is a very effective way of not just supporting young people but also supporting parents," he said.
Rush, who is visiting Taumarunui, said he heard about a family there that has pulled a child out of primary school because it can no longer afford to pay the school bus fare.
Jones said he initially lost 178 students after the first lockdown, but the Ministry of Education provided extra funding for the school to knock on the doors of all those families and brought most of them back to school.
However, the school has since lost a further 80 students, including the 50 or 60 who left to get work to support their families.
Aorere College principal Greg Pierce suggested in the Zoom call with Ardern that such ex-students should get a financial incentive to return to school next year.
Casey said schools in regions outside the initial pilots will be invited to participate in the school lunch scheme before the end of this term on September 25, but she could not yet say when the scheme would start in each region.
"We are finalising the additional schools and kura that will be invited to join the lunches programme across the remaining seven education regions," she said.
"Actual start dates will depend on the procurement processes, contract negotiations and school decisions about when it is most appropriate to commence the provision. Schools and kura will decide on what works best for their students and community."