The Government has launched a trial free lunch in schools programme which it expects to extend out to 21,000 children once the policy is fully rolled out in two years' time.

Starting next year, roughly 5000 Year 1-8 children across 30 schools in Rotorua and Hawke's Bay will receive a free lunch five days a week as part of the policy's trial.

The Government is expecting those 30 schools will become 120 once the full policy is under way in 2021.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Children's Minister Tracey Martin announced the policy at Kaitao Intermediate School in Rotorua today, as part of the Government's Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy.

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Ardern said the idea behind the free lunches policy was "pure and simple – Do we want our kids to go hungry?"

The obvious answer, she said, was no.

"That's why the Government is rolling this school lunch programme out to the kids in New Zealand who need our support the most."

She added that the lunch in schools programme would contribute to the Government's pledge to reduce child poverty.

"You simply can't learn distracted by an empty stomach."

But National is not convinced; its education spokeswoman Nikki Kaye said the programme was well-meaning, but badly designed.

 Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives at Kaitao Intermediate School in Rotorua. Photo / Stephen Parker
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives at Kaitao Intermediate School in Rotorua. Photo / Stephen Parker

The Government consulted with children across the country before it launched the Wellbeing Strategy, Ardern said.

"Children themselves told us during the consultation on the strategy that going to school hungry was a barrier to their learning.

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"That was heartbreaking to hear and this prototype starts to ensure children are fed and have the best chance to succeed."

The free school lunches programme is one of 75 initiatives the Government unveiled today.

Children's Minister Tracey Martin said a major focus on the Government's Child and Youth Wellbeing strategy was to support families and children who are at risk of harm. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Children's Minister Tracey Martin said a major focus on the Government's Child and Youth Wellbeing strategy was to support families and children who are at risk of harm. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The wellbeing strategy aims to reduce child poverty, better support children and young people in care addressing family and sexual violence and put more focus on mental wellbeing.

Martin said a major focus on the strategy was to support families and children who are at risk of harm.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made the announcement at Kaitao Intermediate School in Rotorua.

Although she said the Government had already spent $5.5 billion on the Families Package, "we know there's more to do".

"Especially in housing and ensuring more people can move into sustainable well-paid jobs to take the pressure off families."

She said during the consultation – where the Government spoke to roughly 6000 children – officials heard they had experienced racism, bullying and discrimination.

"The strategy is a blueprint for action," Martin said.

"Delivery on all the actions will help make sure New Zealand is the best place in the world to be a child."

But Kaye said the Government's approach has failed to consider that most schools do not have the infrastructure such as kitchens for large scale food preparation and storage.

"There is minimal funding in this scheme for equipment. The scheme is designed with maximum work for the school unlike the majority of other successful schemes operating now.

"If this is the beginning of a universal free lunch programme for all schools, this would cost hundreds of millions and take away the autonomy of parents to provide lunch for their children."

Kaitao Intermediate's school hall was packed for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's announcement.

School pupils as well as Rotorua Lakes Council representatives, Te Arawa leaders, local principals, government staff and Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft were there.

The Prime Minister was welcomed with a roaring Rotorua pōhiri.

She told the crowd feedback from children across the country shaped the strategy.

"Six thousand children wrote us postcards and gave us their ideas ... I read every single postcard that was written.

"Kids notice everything, they notice when Mum and Dad are struggling".

Ardern asked the pupils if they wanted to be some of the first to receive lunches through the strategy, and was met with applause.

Commissioner Becroft applauded the strategy.

"This is a co-ordinated, integrated plan for the first time. Properly implemented it could be a game-changer.

"Ten per cent [of children] are in chronic disadvantage. This is not the New Zealand we should be proud of, this is not the New Zealand that we want ... and for the first time we've confronted it as a country.

"We're better than this. As a country we deserve to do better for our children. Children have told us what they want, we know what they need, this is their right and this delivers on it."

The commissioner said he hoped free school lunches for all New Zealand children would be the long-term goal.