Opinion: free school lunch issue not over yet

A win for the children of Dunedin!

Finally, last week we got the news our free school lunches programme will continue in primary schools.

Thanks to the hard work of everyone campaigning, this means around 2500 pupils in 21 schools across the Dunedin and Taieri electorates will continue to receive free school lunches daily.

While the free school lunches programme continuing is undoubtedly great news for those tamariki and their families who need the support, unfortunately there is a catch.

Changes are being made to intermediate and secondary school lunches that will remove a lot of the benefits of the programme.

National’s new model will stigmatise kids who need the lunch, because students whose parents can afford to pack them lunch are able to opt out. The current model means there’s no stigma attached to having lunch provided at school when other kids are bringing their own.

As the Labour spokesperson for both the environment and food safety, I was concerned to read that for pupils in year seven and up, the lunches will be distributed from 2025 in a "one-size fits all" model. This means schools will have zero choice about what it is they feed their children.

It also means more waste, which is ironic, given the Act New Zealand Party campaigned against the programme on that basis.

The current mixed model of delivery that allows some schools to provide lunches directly has been found to reduce the most waste, while offering healthy, nutritious food kids will eat. The National Government’s bulk purchased lunches will mean more food goes uneaten, and scrapping the internal delivery model means a lot more single-use packaging.

Any financial savings made are not worth it when we are losing some of the benefits of the programme for intermediate and secondary schools.

I’ve visited primary and secondary schools across the Dunedin and Taieri electorates over the last few months, where principals, teachers, and parents have spoken passionately to me about the importance of keeping our initiative going.

Also of concern to many are the National Government’s changes to the curriculum, such as its mandating of structured literacy across all state schools from 2025.

These matters were still front of mind for all last week when I accompanied Labour’s education spokesperson Jan Tinetti on a series of school visits across Dunedin.

While structured literacy has many benefits and is widely used, several principals are concerned about mandating a single approach for teaching kids how to read. Removing the "Reading Recovery" programme is of particular concern.

Whether the topic is free school lunches or effective learning methods, Labour will continue to fight for all tamariki across New Zealand.