One Kiwi kid’s life in poverty - and why many more are at risk.

Every day for six years Naomi Grace went to school hungry.

"I'd look at everyone else's food and I'd cry to myself – I'd go into the bathroom and cry because I didn't have that," she says. "We only had flour and eggs in our cupboards; from when I was six until I was 12 I was going to school hungry."

At times she got so desperate she would collect leaves, sticks and nuts which she'd take to the school tuck shop in exchange for food: "I thought they might be able to make something with them and on a good day I'd get a pie or a sausage roll."

This is not the tale of the victim of a war-torn combat zone or a drought-ravaged corner of the world: It is the story of a normal New Zealand schoolgirl living in Rotorua and, later, Auckland.

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It comes as KidsCan, a charity helping to alleviate the effects of economic hardship on children, faces a huge increase in demand from the fall-out of Covid-19.

KidsCan CEO Julie Chapman says winter is always a really miserable time for families in hardship but this winter will be the toughest yet as the financial impact of the pandemic is felt.

Before the Covid-19 lockdown KidsCan was feeding 34,000 children a day – that number has now risen to 44,000 this term and the charity expects it to keep rising.

KidsCan already supports 787 schools and 57 early childhood centres (ECE) but 10 schools and almost 100 ECE centres have asked for help to feed a further 4000 children.

Grace, now 27, says from as far back as she can remember she felt like - "I was surviving, I was just living to survive.

"I remember selling second-hand clothes to get food or warmer clothes," she says. "I would have been 13 then, it was very scary. I thought I had no help because my biological Mum was on her deathbed and I just thought 'how the hell am I going to look after myself?'"

Grace says she didn't even have blankets. "I felt so cold at night I'd sleep with my hands over my face almost hyperventilating to try and get that warmth on me; and one winter I didn't have shoes. If KidsCan was there I would have felt safe to ask for help."

After her mother passed away, Grace lived in a caravan with her father for several months before meeting the woman who would eventually become her foster mother. From that point her life began to turn around – eventually taking up a career as a chef and, later, moving into the film industry after studying for a diploma in screen production.

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She says she has a fear people will go hungry in the wake of Covid-19 this winter and not have the essentials they need.

Chapman says many people live in cold, draughty rentals without enough money to heat them properly and might not have a hot meal each day or enough warm clothes.

"Life will look like this for more and more of New Zealand's working poor as they lose their jobs to Covid-19 and that's heartbreaking, "she says. "KidsCan has seen a 30 per cent increase in demand for food support from our partner schools this term and we're feeding 10,000 more children every day."

As well as increasing the number of hot lunches, the charity is sending out thousands of fleece-lined jackets and solid shoes so kids make it to school warm and dry: "If you're cold you can't focus on learning and it means kids are missing out on education," Chapman says.

So far this term KidsCan has distributed 152 tonnes of food - 1.4 million servings – to its partner schools. 317,000 servings of hot meals, including soups, curries and pasta, have gone to 253 schools. It is increasing the volume of lunches for term three to 565,000 serves.

More than 17,500 raincoats and 12,000 pairs of new shoes have been delivered and the charity also provides 10,000 fresh lunches and snacks a week to preschoolers.

KidsCan needs more support to help the rising number of children without enough food and warm clothing. To donate now: www.kidscan.org.nz