Survey shows low and middle decile schools using their resources to help feed hungry pupils.

Schools are digging into their teaching budgets - in some cases relying on donations from principals and teachers - to feed children who turn up hungry.

A nationwide survey of lower decile school principals has indicated how many kids don't have breakfast or lunch, with those in some areas reporting up to 80 per cent of students arriving without food each week.

Among the respondents were 70 decile four and five schools, suggesting child poverty is creeping into middle income families.

Most of the 270 schools who responded to the New Zealand Principals' Federation questionnaire said they fed some of their students, with more than half feeding at least 20 per cent each week.

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Principals reported using up to $5000 of their operations grants on feeding children each term and many also paid teacher aides to co-ordinate available programmes or help at breakfast and lunchtime.

"Good on those schools, they know kids can't learn unless they're fed," said NZPF president Denise Torrey.

"But it's not good enough to let it fall on school shoulders. I think parents will be surprised to learn how much has been paid out from resources that they thought were for learning."

The majority of schools who replied were receiving help from programmes like KidsCan, KickStart or Fruit in Schools. Although the programmes were free, staff had to organise the produce once it arrived and prepare the meals, and school money was used to top up when there wasn't enough.

Principal Katherine Ellery from Castlecliff school in Whanganui said half of their pupils came every day for breakfast, and the school paid a teacher aide to organise it.

"Each week we also send home a food parcel to at least one family that doesn't have food," she said.

Tony Holland, principal of Te Teko school, said in the past he had fed kids himself. The school now participated in a breakfast and fruit programme.

"If the fruit doesn't come each day the kids are asking for it, they look forward to it."

This year, two bills aimed at helping hungry kids were voted down in Parliament.

At the time, Education Minister Hekia Parata called three schools in a survey, and reported small numbers needing help from each.

Prime Minister John Key used that evidence to say: "Yes, there is an issue where some children come to school without lunch. That number of children is relatively low."

One of the principals Ms Parata called was Iain Taylor from Manurewa Intermediate. This week he told the Herald it hadn't been a "typical" day.

"I think we had about 11 hungry. Some days it's lower than that, some days it's 200. An average would be about 25 children."

Mr Taylor's school also pays a teacher aide to help implement programmes, and pays for some lunch out of its own budget.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei said the survey needed to be a call to action from the Government to draft its own bill to help kids.

"It's unacceptable for thousands of Kiwi kids to go hungry at school, or for teachers to reach into their own pockets to feed them."

Ms Turei revealed the Greens had offered to drop their food-in-schools bill if the Government had committed to providing a solution in the Budget.

Labour MP David Shearer, the author of the second bill, said he'd hoped to address hunger but in a way that taught parents about budgeting and nutrition, and believed it still needed to happen.

Children's Commissioner Russell Wills said he believed "brokers" - government-funded staff who could co-ordinate the multiple programmes for the schools - would alleviate some of the pressure while ensuring local business, non-profits and parents were involved.

Yesterday, Mr Key stood by his statements about children going hungry. A spokesman said he based that on a range of sources including visits to schools and discussions with principals.

He said the Government had recognised there were families who needed additional support, and Budget 2015 included a $790 million package to reduce hardship among New Zealand's poorest families.

Ms Parata said the Government trusted schools to spend their operational funding in ways that will best raise achievement. She referred further questions to the Minster for Social Development, Anne Tolley.

When asked if she would consider extra funding to help implement the current programmes, Ms Tolley said: "The current programme is available to any school that wants or needs it, regardless of decile."

It doesn't amount to much but it's better than nothing

Adam Whitaker, 10, tucks into his Weet Bix at the Breakfast Club at Papatoetoe South School. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Adam Whitaker, 10, tucks into his Weet Bix at the Breakfast Club at Papatoetoe South School. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The food on the table isn't much - just Weet-Bix and milk - but it's better than nothing, which is what many of the kids at Papatoetoe South School would get otherwise.

Principal Mark Barratt says the school can have up to 50 kids a day come in for breakfast, or for lunch, to eat food supplied by KickStart and KidsCan.

Children come in before the bell or sometimes teachers will send them in once they get to class and say they haven't eaten.

The day the Herald visited that's exactly what happened - the milk had just been put away when three little bodies appeared at the staffroom door - and so a second breakfast began. The school pays a teacher aide to run the programmes, and occasionally a teacher will buy bread for lunches from his or her own purse.

For Mr Barratt, it's about more than feeding kids. The school social worker can keep an eye on children, and the older children learn about giving back by helping make lunches for their younger peers.

They're hoping to get more parents involved, and eventually hand over the running of the project to the community.

"You can get bogged down into thinking that schools shouldn't do that or parents are wasting money or all sorts of things, but bottom line is kids don't learn if they're hungry," Mr Barratt says.

The survey

• Sent to all Decile 1 to 5 schools, approx 1200 in total; 270 schools replied.

• Eighty-five schools - one third of the total - said up to 20 per cent of their kids came to school without having eaten breakfast, or without lunch, each week. Another 45 schools put this figure at 30 per cent.

• 88 per cent of schools, when asked if they used school resources to feed children, said yes.

• 73 per cent said they used school money to feed kids, 51 said management time and 63 said teacher time.

What principals said

• "Teachers donate meat, bread, other sandwich fillings so students have lunch."

• "We grow our own food and give the students three hot meals per week with produce from the garden."

• "We don't identify individuals, we just provide a lunch for everyone once or twice a week and top up any children as required."

• "As the principal for the first year of setting up our Breakfast Club I paid for it myself."

• "Our school has the approach of working with parents to ensure they meet their obligations to provide for their children."

• "We want children to feel free to get breakfast without feeling any shame from seeing staff."

• "Much of it is done quietly by teachers in their own rooms, from their own pockets."

Read the survey: