The Social Welfare Minister is out on the road, listening to people who have read her green paper on child abuse. At her first public meeting, in Kaitaia this week, Paula Bennett heard a case for providing children at school with a free lunch. A worker for the Te Aupouri Maori Trust Board told her the board had been providing lunch for 15 to 20 children at five Kaitaia schools and found it reduced thefts and truancy.

But, he said, they were ordered to stop because Ms Bennett's officials said it was not part of the board's contract with the ministry under a "social workers in schools" programme. It is easy to understand the ministry's concern. Logic says that if free lunches are made available in schools many, perhaps most, parents will save themselves the expense and bother of making one. Before very long, a school lunch would become a standard state provision, adding untold millions to the annual Budget. Food producers and nutritional watchdogs would monitor the meals and constantly ask for more.

Those are implications that policy-makers in Wellington have to consider. But it is valuable for them and their minister to get out sometimes. Te Aupouri Trust Board's social workers had simply met a need they had found. Some children were coming to school without food, or not coming to school, and stealing other pupil's food or going hungry. The social workers decided the best use of their budget was to fill a few stomachs. They were probably right.

Educationists say children who are hungry cannot learn. Teachers in some places attest to children coming to school without having had breakfast, let alone carrying a packed lunch. Doubtless there is often no excuse for parents on low incomes or benefits to neglect this basic need, many in similar circumstances have their priorities right. But the children are not to blame.


Public health professionals would likely join educationists in enthusiastically endorsing the Te Aupouri social workers' initiative. In fact health considerations would probably argue for a free school lunch for all children instead of the sugars, salts and fats that children are liable to bring from home or buy with their lunch money.

But the misgivings of Wellington's budgetary guardians are not wrong. School lunches would be a significant additional burden for taxpayers and it would be difficult to restrict them to need. Who is going to say that any child lining up for a meal does not qualify?

Universal provision would have its own problems. Whatever the nation decided to afford would never be considered enough for some needs, and in other places it would be wasted. Like the free school milk of old, the lunch would be widely scorned by those who did not really need it and maybe, peer pressure being what it is, by those who do need it.

These are problems of nationwide policy. They can be solved if policy-makers are prepared to trust local contractors such as the Te Aupouri Maori Trust Board's social services to spend a grant wisely. Where social workers find food to be the best use of money provided under a national Child Youth and Family programme in schools, let them provide lunch for those pupils who clearly need it.

Local social workers will know the families well enough to assess real need, and if they find their efforts abused or wasted, they will soon find other uses for the money. Bulk funding of contracted social services can work well, so long as results can be measured. Food for hungry pupils could surely produce a measurable improvement in their performance.

All of this might seem a long way from the subject of a green paper on children vulnerable to abuse, but the role of poverty and hunger in those children's predicament is probably another message the minister is hearing on the ground.