An increasing number of children are turning up hungry and shoeless to school as the cost of living for some families in New Zealand proves too hard to handle.

A principal, who did not want to be named, at a South Island school has also spoken of two brothers who were alternating school days so they could share the one pair of shoes they owned.

KidsCan says it's now dealing with a wait list that has exploded this year, with thousands of school kids now in desperate need.

The charity currently provides food, clothing and health items for 741 schools in need. In 2018 alone, KidsCan gave out 5.27 million items of food, a 20 per cent increase on 2017.

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Charity founder and chief executive Julie Chapman said she was pleased to see them conquer their wait list last October but it had since peaked again at 35, just eight months later.

"Unfortunately, because the level of material hardship just continues to grow, we now have a further 35 schools on our waiting list around the country and also a growing number of early child centres as well which essentially means there are hundreds if not thousands of children actually waiting for our support."

The eight-month turnaround, from no waiting list to a long one, was quick and didn't affect just kids in the big cities.

While five schools are on the waiting list in Auckland and three in Christchurch, there are two in Kaitaia, two in Rotorua, two in Wellington, as well as schools in Fielding, Taupo, Tokoroa and Gore.

Last October, KidsCan launched a programme in 25 early childhood centres in Auckland, Northland and the Hawke's Bay after a successful pilot programme in the Waikato.

"We know that children don't just suddenly find themselves in hardship when they turn 5. There was really nothing at all going into early childhood centres to support the material needs of children doing it tough," Chapman said.

KidsCan founder Julie Chapman says the need for help from schools at the moment is relentless with no sign of letup in sight. Photo / File
KidsCan founder Julie Chapman says the need for help from schools at the moment is relentless with no sign of letup in sight. Photo / File

However, the new burgeoning wait list did not involve ECEs, they had their own wait list.

"I think the thing that really hits home to me is that the level of hardship seems to be getting worse and increasing.

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"And I think a big component of that really has to come back to housing. A lot of the families in the schools that we support just don't have that good security of housing or they're having to live in overcrowded housing and it's just a terrible situation for everyone involved.

"Things are pretty grim for families."

Chapman also wanted to dispose of the myth that it was just families in a lower socio-economic situation that were finding it tough.

"There is simply not enough money coming into those houses and there's no security of housing and the cost of living just means that isn't enough money to go around and cover those basics and things like food and clothing and doctor's visits just go out the window.

"We're hearing about children that turn up with out shoes, we're hearing schools tell us that more children are turning up without anything to eat more frequently."

KidsCan provides 310,000 hot meals a week to the current 741 schools in its programme. Photo / File
KidsCan provides 310,000 hot meals a week to the current 741 schools in its programme. Photo / File

They were even getting calls from parents who were keeping their children at home as they didn't have any suitable wet-weather clothing.

"When that happens children just aren't getting the education opportunities that they deserve. We have to actually realise that as a country we need to invest in the education of the youngest because they are going to be our future work force and our future leaders."

In the charity's 14 year existence, Chapman had noticed it had been getting "much worse" in the past couple of years especially in relation to the cost of living and housing.

'They were brothers ... if one was there, the other wasn't'

A South Island principal tells her anonymous, and heartbreaking, story of running a school in 2019.

They were two gorgeous boys, brothers in my Year 5 and 6 class. But they were never there together. If one was at school, the other wasn't. One day I'd had enough, so I put my grumpy teacher's voice on and said to one, "What is going on? It's not good enough."

His reply broke my heart. "We've got one pair of shoes that we share, and today's my day to wear them, so I come to school."

Well, the grumpy voice disappeared and the tears appeared in my eyes. They weren't choosing to bunk school. They had worked it out so they could each have a wee bite of learning. The next day I took them shopping. After that, they were at school every day.

Basic items like shoes are preventing too many children from going to school. Photo / Getty Images
Basic items like shoes are preventing too many children from going to school. Photo / Getty Images

Proper shoes are a really big thing for our kids. A lot of them have those cheap canvas ones, so when they get wet, they stay wet. Others have shoes that are way too big for them, or the soles flap, or the toes have been cut out of them. I saw one wee girl yesterday and she had tights on because it was cold, but she had sandals with her tights, and wet toes.

We can't get to the learning until we address the wellbeing of these students. One day we were doing some writing, and one boy said "I can't think what to write." I said, "Just write what's in your head." I came back to find a page of "I'm hungry. I'm hungry. I'm hungry." And it turned out that there was no food in the house and that hunger was all-consuming for him. Had he not written it, I would never have known.

So on the way to school every day I stop by the local bakery and they give me yesterday's food: bread rolls, muffins, baking. We quietly shoulder tap the kids we know are hungry, so there's no stigma. We're on the waiting list for KidsCan help - which will mean food, raincoats and shoes. KidsCan supported my last school and I miss it hugely, just being able to feed a child easily when they're hungry.

I've been teaching for three decades, and there's more need out there than ever before. The thing that is new is the working poor. We can't say that these children are coming from impoverished homes because the parents are lazy or because they're drinking or they're smoking. We've got parents who are both working two jobs and there's still not enough money to pay the high rent and food and power and clothing. It's bizarre to think that in New Zealand we've now got this subculture.

Many parents struggle to ask for help. I've learnt to listen, and not judge. I had one little girl who was absent a lot. When I asked her mum why, it emerged that she had no raincoat, and only one uniform. When it rained, her mother couldn't get her uniform dry in time for school the next day. "She has other clothes, but I couldn't send her not in uniform," she told me. "The children would look at her and she would be different. I don't want that for her." We found her spare uniforms and she left with a hug and a big smile.

We lose part of our roll when it rains. It's easier for parents keep their kids home rather than send them to school knowing that they're going to get wet, and then people might realise that actually they don't have a jacket.

But we need our kids at school. Education is what will get them out of the poverty trap, and let them realise that there's more to life than what they've experienced in their own homes. And so I've learnt that takes a village to raise a child - more so nowadays than ever before.

There's some pretty amazing people out there. The bakery, the church who supports us, all the people who donate to KidsCan - everybody doing something adds up. On Mondays, one of our parents makes an extra lunch for a hungry child in her daughter's class. It's a really cool lunch, one little thing that she could do to pay it forward. For that wee kid, he's never away on a Monday.

My favourite parable is the starfish story. There's a trillion starfish washed up on the beach, and an old man is throwing them back into the ocean. Someone comes along and says, "You're never going to save them all." And he bends over, picks one up, throws it back and says, "I made a difference to that one." I so live by that. For that child on that day he's the starfish that we've made a difference to. What keeps you going is that belief.

KidsCan relies on public donations to help families. To sign up as a monthly donor visit KidsCan.