Programmes offering assistance need to do so without stigma

Ka Ora, Ka Ako was introduced by Labour in 2019 and has been allocated about $160 million a year...
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The elimination of stigma is an important part of ensuring the effectiveness of any programme promoting social and physical wellbeing.

I was training to be a youth worker in 1983 and worked two days a week at a basketball gymnasium run by a local church in Otara, South Auckland. At lunchtime we would help provide one of New Zealand’s first free-lunch programmes for the primary school next door. It was started by a local man concerned that children were coming to school without lunch and their education was suffering because of it.

It was a very basic lunch, boiled mince with bread and margarine (I don’t remember that there were any vegetables), but it was hot and there was plenty of it. Sometimes they let me stir the pot so that it didn’t burn, but my main job was going to a local bread factory and picking up the loaves of donated returned bread that hadn’t sold. Sometimes it was a little stale and was often brown or wholemeal bread, which was a bit exotic for South Auckland in 1983.

At lunchtime kids would come over to get their lunch with a ticket they had received from their school.

There were two ways to get a ticket. You could buy it for 50c from your classroom teacher, or, if you didn’t have money or lunch, you would tell the teacher and they would give you a ticket. This added measure meant the teacher had a greater awareness of what was happening in that child’s life. I wasn’t there long enough to find out how much schools used this information, but I assume many teachers did so to the benefit of their students.

It wasn’t a perfect system. Other children might find out who didn’t have lunch as they could easily see in class who paid for a ticket and who didn’t, but for those of us dishing out the food, we didn’t have a clue. The lunch programme had been going for a couple of years before I was involved and so had been going long enough and successfully enough to remove the stigma of needing a free lunch.

The removing of stigma attached to lunch programmes is important because stigmas can have a very negative effect and prevent people from getting the assistance they need.

The word stigma originally comes from Ancient Greek and refers to how traitors and criminals would have marks cut or burnt into their skin as a punishment. This is where the phrase ‘‘branded as a traitor’’ comes from. It was a physical sign of their disgrace and was a reminder of their inferior status that could be readily identified by anyone in public.

Historically, physical stigmas were used around the world and were used in Britain and America until the 19th century.

While we no longer have such physical stigmas, social stigmas are alive and well. Some people like the idea of stigma being associated with certain behaviours, as they believe it encourages people to conform to certain norms as a means of social control, which reinforces those behaviours.

The problem, of course, is that often social stigmas are placed on people who have little responsibility for whatever misfortune they happen to be enduring, especially children.

As a society we have made enormous strides to remove stigmas from things that in the past were considered a fault of weakness or impurity. It has become more acceptable now to acknowledge mental health struggles, although past stigma means some are still ashamed of their struggles and keep them hidden, to their detriment.

Some of those pushing for changes to the school lunch programmes want the free lunch to only go to those most in need. These types of approaches deliberately encourage a stigma, further isolating people who are already struggling. It uses stigma as a tool to punish people for their poverty, as if poverty itself isn’t enough of a punishment.

Thankfully, the government has resisted cancelling the free-lunch programme and are even expanding it to preschoolers. However, I do have a concern that limiting foods just to those that Pākehā eat dismisses the reality of our multi-ethnic society. I also worry that it is being set up to fail by being deliberately underfunded.

It is difficult to see how they can provide lunches for $3 when 40 years ago it cost 50c, even with half the food and all the labour and energy cost donated. Prices are now surely at least tenfold what they were then.

The way we do school lunches compared to 40 years ago has changed because New Zealand has changed. But the challenge continues to be to feed children who need it without stigmatising them. Hopefully this current scheme does just that.

 - Dr Anaru Eketone is a senior lecturer at the University of Otago’s social and community work programme.