A Herald investigation shows many children are going to school unfed. We explore why, and what can be done.

by A children's lobby group says New Zealanders should stop blaming the parents of hungry children and allow their tax money to be used to feed children in the poorest schools.

In a report issued today, the Child Poverty Action Group says parents on benefits and in low-wage jobs cannot afford to feed their children well.

It says the recent collapse of a Red Cross breakfast programme in 61 decile 1 schools, after Countdown supermarkets stopped sponsoring it shows the country cannot rely on charity to fill the gap.


It recommends schools should keep working with charities that are still providing food, but that taxpayers should pay for a part-time co-ordinator for three hours a day in every decile 1 and 2 primary and intermediate schools to organise food supplies and volunteers to make sure children get breakfast.

It says this would cost $6.7 million a year if charities and other donors provide the food, or up to $14 million if schools have to buy the food.

"Any funding model should be sufficiently flexible to allow for funding for food in schools in low-income communities that do not have access to donations from local businesses," it says. "Small rural schools might be an example."

Researcher Donna Wynd surveyed 17 Auckland decile 1 and 2 schools and found that all but one provided food for pupils.

Almost all said some students, especially those from larger families, were coming to school without either breakfast or lunch.

"One common and worrying observation was that parents will keep children home if they did not have food," she found.

Five schools that were interviewed in depth estimated that between 15 and 25 per cent of their students were not getting breakfast at home.

"What for me was quite telling was the principals who said the demand had gone up this year," Mrs Wynd said.


"That is consistent with all the reports from foodbanks and budgeting agencies.

"It is time to put the blaming of parents to one side and to focus on improving the educational outcomes of affected children."

Benefits were cut in 1991 and have never been restored. For example benefits and family support for a sole parent with two children fell from about 77 per cent to 67 per cent of the after-tax average wage in 1991, and slid further to 60 per cent by 2009.

Wages have also become much less equal. Incomes grew by 37 per cent in real terms from 1988 to 2009 for households richer than four-fifths of all households, but grew by only 20 per cent for households richer than only a fifth of households.

Food is the major area squeezed in poorer homes. Beneficiary families prioritise paying for their housing, power and other utilities, costing an average of $217.70 a week for beneficiaries against $292.70 for working families. But they spend only half as much on food - $109.50, against $202.80 for working families.

The report praises the Red Cross breakfasts because they were available five days a week, but has mixed views on the other two national charities providing food in schools.

It says Kickstart, sponsored by Fonterra and Sanitarium, "falls far short of meeting the needs of many children" because it provides breakfast only two days a week - a policy aiming to "teach kids a breakfast pattern they can replicate at home rather than take over parental responsibility".

The other main charity, KidsCan, feeds students "identified by teachers as needing food".

"The provision of food is thus arbitrary, subjective and has no public accountability," the report says.

But Child Poverty Action convener Mike O'Brien said the Government did not need to duplicate "something that's working".

"We are in favour of developing partnerships with local communities and local businesses because there is a real sense that that gives them a buy-in and some sense of engagement and keeps the community involved with what the school is doing," he said.

But he said the Red Cross scheme's collapse showed New Zealand could not rely on charity alone and needed to put breakfast programmes on a sustainable footing.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said the Government was monitoring the situation.

"It's something that we are always looking at," she said. "I do think the community has a role as well and it isn't the Government first that will step in and do everything within the schools."