The Government yesterday 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. Rotorua Daily Post journalist Sam Olley gets Rotorua's reaction to the announcement.
"A giant step forward" has been announced in Rotorua, but there's still plenty of work to do.
Those were Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft's words, and they reflected the consensus from national and local leaders alike, following Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Children's Minister Tracey Martin's announcements at Kaitao Intermediate yesterday.
Rotorua children will be among 21,000 receiving free lunches under the Government's new trial.
Starting next year, roughly 5000 Year 1-8 children across 30 schools in Rotorua and Hawke's Bay will get a free lunch five days a week.
The Government is expecting those 30 schools will become 120 once the full policy is under way in 2021, at a cost of $45 million.
"You simply can't learn distracted by an empty stomach," Ardern said.
The lunches were one of 75 initiatives the Government unveiled as part of its new Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy, which Ardern said was shaped by feedback from children.
"Six thousand children wrote us postcards and gave us their ideas ... I read every single postcard that was written."
Martin said a major focus on the strategy was to support families and children who were at risk of harm.
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She said although the Government had already spent $5.5 billion on the Families Package, "we know there's more to do".
However, National's education spokesperson Nikki Kaye said the Prime Minister's announcement was "flawed".
She said the money could be used more effectively to reach youth of all ages.
"If this is the beginning of a universal free lunch programme for all schools, this would cost hundreds of millions."
Meanwhile, Commissioner Becroft said, "properly implemented it [the strategy] could be a game-changer".
He hoped free school lunches for all New Zealand children would be the long-term goal.
Eden Chapman, who was the principal of Rotorua Decile 1 school Sunset Primary, said the initiative was "so exciting".
"This is not about poverty or tamariki being made to feel different, instead it's about equity."
He attended the announcement with a small group of his students, who had the chance to meet the Prime Minister.
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said she was "very pleased" Rotorua schools would be among the first to benefit from the lunches scheme and welcomed the wider strategy too.
"In Rotorua, 41 per cent of children aged 9 and under live in areas with the highest deprivation ratings, and we need to change that," she said.
"I'd like to see councils being central to the reporting of local indicators and am keen to understand how local government will be brought in".
Full Puku Full Potential founder Kahira Rata-Olley told the Rotorua Daily Post "I have always said 'Why the hell are we investing in educating children when they aren't provided with kai?'"
"It's not rocket science ... Even if it's just sandwiches."
She said she was once "a hungry child" herself and the reasons behind the national problem were "never black and white".
"Our charity is now feeding children of the working poor."
Rata-Olley said the benefits of providing lunches were felt by teachers, parents and "the whole village".
"Sometimes kids without food will resort to stealing it, which can lead to further crime. There is a rippled effect and sometimes all it started with was hunger."
Following the lunches announcement, general manager for Te Arawa Whānau Ora, Ngaroma Grant said it was "a very good first initiative but there is still a lot of work to do at a whānau level to address their needs".
She said malnutrition in children affected "physical growth, their teeth, brain development ... So all of those areas are going to be affected by being able to have kai".
Salvation Army Rotorua corps officer Lt Kylie Overbye said it was a step in the right direction.
"We met a young child a few weeks ago coming in with their parent for assistance and the child was upset about not being able to go to school that day."
However, she said lunches in schools were not a long-term solution to poverty.
KidsCan founder Julie Chapman said she was "waiting for the detail" around the free food, but was glad the Government was acting.
The charity currently had 38 schools and about 100 early childhood centres in its waiting list, some of which were in the Bay of Plenty.
Chapman said: "if the Government money can get into the schools or centres that we can't right now, that would be a win for everybody."
However, Family First New Zealand said: "State-funded lunches are a short-term bandage for a much more serious and longer-term illness."