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The initiative is already under way for 7000 pupils at 31 schools in Hawke’s Bay and Bay of Plenty.
The Government aims to extend the prototype to 21,000 pupils in 120 schools, including Otago and Southland schools, by the start of 2021.
Of the 17 schools in Otago and Southland invited to the programme, none had confirmed their participation yet because it was still very early in the invitation process, a Ministry of Education spokeswoman said.
The new programme is part of the Government’s Child Youth and Wellbeing Strategy, which recognises that reducing child poverty is vital to improving the wellbeing of many of New Zealand’s most vulnerable children.
All schools in the programme have children with high levels of disadvantage, according to the Ministry of Education’s Equity Index, which estimates the extent to which each child grows up in socio-economically disadvantaged circumstances that are associated with educational outcomes.
The start of the programme was celebrated in Hawke’s Bay yesterday, when Prime Minister and Child Poverty Reduction Minister Jacinda Ardern and Education Minister Chris Hipkins served lunch to pupils at Flaxmere Primary School.
Ms Ardern said a full stomach made all the difference to a child’s learning.
"We are making good progress on tackling the long-term challenges that cause child poverty, but none of the solutions are instant.
‘‘Providing a free and healthy lunch at school is one way to help make New Zealand the best place in the world to be a child and to make that difference immediately.
"As we’ve seen at Flaxmere Primary, providing these lunches has also led to jobs for local families."
Mr Hipkins said most schools had selected external suppliers to provide their lunches, but Flaxmere was one of five which had opted to prepare its own lunches.
"The model used by Flaxmere Primary involves whanau as key players in the design and delivery of its lunch programme.
"All schools in this first tranche have worked hard to meet the requirements of the pilot, and their insight will help to inform the ongoing roll-out of free lunches in schools.’’
Starting in these regions would give the Government the mix of schools and kura in urban, rural and isolated locations that are needed to fully evaluate impacts and issues with the programme, he said.