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School lunches: Health campaigners blast ‘extremely concerning’ David Seymour appointment

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Act leader David Seymour has described free school lunches as ‘wasteful’ public spending and argued that the new Government should cut them. Alex Spence reports that health campaigners are alarmed he has been given responsibility for the initiative and have asked for an urgent meeting.

A coalition of health charities has slammed the Government’s decision to give ministerial responsibility for free school lunches to David Seymour after the Act leader campaigned for the programme to be abolished.

Representatives of the Health Coalition Aotearoa (HCA) wrote to Seymour, an Associate Education Minister, on Monday requesting an urgent meeting so they can plead the case for keeping the scheme, which provides free lunches to about 220,000 students across the country, according to a letter obtained by the Herald.

Ka Ora, Ka Ako, which was introduced by Labour in 2019 and has been allocated about $160 million a year to operate, has not been funded beyond this year. Prime Minister Christopher Luxon told the Herald last month the programme would continue, but Professor Boyd Swinburn, the HCA’s co-chair, said the decision to put one of its most fervent critics in charge of the policy raises doubts about its future.

Ka Ora, Ka Ako was introduced by Labour in 2019 and has been allocated about $160 million a year to operate. Photo / Bevan Conley
Ka Ora, Ka Ako was introduced by Labour in 2019 and has been allocated about $160 million a year to operate. Photo / Bevan Conley

“We are concerned that we have a minister in charge who has made it clear he wants the programme shut down for ideological reasons without full consideration of the evidence,” Swinburn told the Herald.

“His appointment signals that the future of the programme is in question, which is extremely concerning because it would jeopardise the health and wellbeing of these kids.”

The development sets up school lunches as another potential public health flashpoint after the new Government’s controversial reversal of Labour’s smokefree plans. The coalition repealed the legislation under urgency on Tuesday despite opposition from health groups and polls suggesting that a majority of voters supported tougher anti-tobacco measures.

Seymour attacked free school lunches during the election campaign, describing them as “wasteful”, “unaffordable”, and a “marketing stunt”. He urged National to abandon the programme if it got back into power.

As the minister responsible for the policy, Seymour told the Herald: “I take the issue of free school lunches extremely seriously, and it is under consideration as part of the Government putting together a Budget.

“It is true that we are in a difficult position because the previous government committed to a spending programme worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year without commissioning any robust empirical study to evaluate its effectiveness. What’s worse, the evidence that is in place indicates that the free school lunch programme has not improved attendance or achievement in any measurable way.”

Seymour added: “I will be looking at what evidence we do have and what feedback we get from the community to make a decision that balances the country’s books and the expectations people have around the free school lunch programme.”

In 2019, Labour announced plans to deliver free, healthy daily meals to students in selected primary, intermediate, and composite schools, particularly in areas of high poverty. A pilot study found that the meals led to a significant reduction in hunger during the day, particularly among the most economically disadvantaged students.

Ka Ora, Ka Ako was expanded rapidly and by last year it covered about a quarter of all students. Evaluations found that it led to children eating more nutritious food and contributed positively to their wellbeing, but it had little impact on school attendance and did not deliver the expected benefits for Māori students.

Treasury officials expressed ambivalence in a briefing to then-finance minister Grant Robertson, describing the evidence for the initiative’s effectiveness and value for money as mixed and pointing out that many of the meals had been wasted. “We do not recommend Ka Ora, Ka Ako become permanent until it is shown to be effective for Māori,” Treasury advisers said.

Professor Boyd Swinburn, co-chair of the Health Coalition Aotearoa.
Professor Boyd Swinburn, co-chair of the Health Coalition Aotearoa.

At the 2023 Budget, Labour committed $323.4m to fund the programme until the end of this academic year. During the election campaign, Labour promised to commit another $650m to keep Ka Ora, Ka Ako going through another parliamentary term if it was returned to office.

Luxon said during the campaign that National supported the programme in principle but wanted to examine its cost-effectiveness, and when pressed on it by a reporter last month said it would continue. An adviser to Minister of Education Erica Stanford did not respond to a request for comment about National’s intentions for the scheme.

Swinburn said: “Without this programme, thousands of children would simply not get their daily nutritional needs met, with serious implications for their learning and development.”

Swinburn co-authored a study with other researchers at the University of Auckland last year which said the programme had brought more nutritious food into schools, reduced hunger, increased physical fitness and mental well being, lessened financial stress on struggling families, and created new jobs.

The researchers argued that the programme should be expanded to include students experiencing food insecurity in schools that do not currently participate.

Jan Tinetti, the former Education Minister and Labour’s education spokeswoman, said: “The free and healthy lunches in schools programme feeds our kids, helps them to learn, and saves families money. It is the exact kind of programme that should continue to be funded, especially during a cost of living crisis.

“Teachers are consistently telling us how much this programme benefits learning and kids’ well being in the classroom. If David Seymour has any sense he will change his long-held position on the programme and commit to funding it.”

Alex Spence is an investigative reporter and feature writer who tends to focus on social issues. He joined the Herald in 2020 after 17 years in London where he worked for The Times, Politico, and BuzzFeed News. He can be reached at alex.spence@nzme.co.nz or by text or secure Signal messaging on 0272358834.



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