Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Data dishes on free school lunches

The latest research into the impact of the Ka Ora, Ka Ako – Aotearoa’s free school lunch programme – has provided evidence of the benefits of the scheme, including a reported reduction in food insecurity for students and whānau.

University of Auckland research fellow, Pippa McKelvie-Sebileau and her research team conducted interviews with students, whānau and principals in four Hawke’s Bay schools for the study, published in Health Promotion International today. It is the first time the views of those most directly impacted have been recorded and presented by researchers.

Health Coalition Aotearoa (HCA) wants to see Ka Ora, Ka Ako expanded, with a petition calling on the doubling of the programme submitted to Parliament in June.

The Government has agreed to fund the programme until the end of 2024 at its current size – 25% of schools in the most disadvantaged areas.

Researchers found that more than 80% of families in the study were experiencing significant financial insecurity and 82% identified as Māori.

Participants reported that the lunches had alleviated hunger “in a way that was mana-enhancing for everyone because everyone ate the same meal together”.

For parents, the lunches had a big impact on their grocery bill and increased financial security.

Parents also commented on their child’s change in food preferences, towards healthier options.

“My daughter asked me to buy a pumpkin at the supermarket, ‘Mum, can we get a pumpkin?’ ‘What for?’ ‘Pumpkin soup’.”

The research found internal delivery models, such as having on-site cooks, achieved greater benefits and uptake by students than those with external caterers, including working through initial hesitancy.

Schools with an external caterer reported lower uptake of the lunches, and students were more likely to have a negative perception of the food provided.

McKelvie-Sebileau said the research showed improvements could be made in some cases such as involving school communities in the choice of lunch provider, increasing the attractiveness of the menus to limit food waste, and closing tuckshops at lunch time.

“They could get stricter on what schools need to do to make it work, like they cannot run a healthy food programme and sell lasagne toppers at the tuckshop,” she said.

“The food environment needs to be protected, so the lunch programme is really valued and has the most impact.”

HCA co-chair, Lisa Te Morenga said it was imperative the free lunches were both high quality and tasted good.

“A lot of critics worry about food waste, but when the food tastes good, kids will eat it,” said Ms Te Morenga.

She said providers cooking the food on-site had a lot more flexibility to respond readily to kid’s preferences and reduce food waste.

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