Thursday 28 August 2014

A Policy A Day: Food in Schools

In the lead-up to the election, we are going to examine one policy per (working) day. We've selected policies to be as balanced as possible across a range of policy areas and across the political parties. The idea is to explain the background, analyse the policy to investigate the pros and cons, and give a verdict on the policy at the end. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that - after all, we're voters too. Also, I say 'we' because this series will feature some guest posts from other young people, to share their thoughts and ideas as well. A list of all the articles is available hereEnjoy!

Today's post is written by Maanya Tandon.

I’ve been asked to analyse and present to you the policy of free meals in schools, proposed by the Internet-Mana Party. Initially pushed heavily by the Mana Movement a couple of years ago, it remains on the agenda of the now Internet-Mana party, with a broad degree of support from Labour, Greens, and New Zealand First.[1]

I’ll start with my verdict: Yes. Absolutely, and 100% yes. Support this policy. There is no valid reason not to, in light of the gross levels of child poverty in Aotearoa.

Firstly – what does the policy involve?
· Establishing Government-funded breakfast and lunch-programmes in all decile 1 and decile 2 schools
· This would provide breakfast and lunch for all children every day at all schools, kohanga, and early childhood education centres – starting with schools in low income communities.[2]
· The policy is reflected in the Education (Breakfast and Lunch Programmes in Schools) Amendment Bill. This Bill had its First Reading on 28 May this year.
· If the text on Mana party’s website is correct, Internet-Mana would support an amendment at the Select Committee stage of this Bill to include all decile 3 and 4 schools, as recommended by a recent report by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Children’s Commissioner.

The problem
There is an absolutely inexcusable level of poverty in Aotearoa (though I’m not sure any level of poverty actually qualifies as ‘excusable’). Those hit the hardest, and among the most vulnerable are children, particularly those in Maori and Pacific communities.[3] The Children’s Commissioner identifies that “disproportionate number of these children are exposed to multiple risk factors that contribute to poorer outcomes.”[4]

There are currently 285,000 children living in poverty in NZ, 100,000 of which go to school hungry every day. This affects their development, ability to learn, grow, and ultimately their right to not be burdened by hunger or poor nutrition. It’s not a small minority of ‘extreme poverty’ that we’re talking about here. Research by the Ministry of Health shows roughly 20 percent of New Zealand households with children run out of money for food.[5] Children in low-income households are also more likely to have higher cholesterol intake and eat fewer healthy foods than their peers in higher income households.[6]

Further, “there is a clear and consistent relationship between nutrition and academic outcomes in the long term. Children who eat regular meals and have an adequate nutrient intake do better at school than those who skip meals and have inadequate nutrition intakes.”[7]

In the face of stats like this, it’s hard to disagree with a policy aimed at promoting children’s wellbeing and addressing child poverty in Aotearoa. No one, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum, disagrees with the aims of this policy. What does become the subject of debate (at least, going by the first reading of this Bill in Parliament) is mainly
i) whether we are currently doing enough to address the ‘food in schools’ issue and 
ii) where the responsibility for this ultimately falls

I know that it’s always been (and remains) politically popular to talk about poverty, disadvantage, and inequality in New Zealand as if it’s the by-product of poor decision making rather than a consequence of the systemic and structural biases of the neo-liberal economic logic we live by. We talk about these things as if they are the products of decisions of individuals – unaffected by colonialism, race, gender, disability, class, among a host of other factors. While we’re outraged by child abuse and neglect when we read about it or see it on the news, we seem to be really ok with overlooking the health and wellbeing of children when it occurs in less sensationalist or ‘headline-worthy’ forms. That’s where policies such as this come in. 

Education and health matter
Poverty is the single largest contributor to educational under-achievement. A recent report by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) iterates that there is unequivocal research indicating that the major predictor of educational success is socio-economic circumstances at birth.[8]

According to the CPAG report, “the Government's key schooling indicators show New Zealand's current school system is failing to help students overcome the effects of poverty and socio-economic disadvantage. On average children at lower decile schools do not achieve as well as children who are better off, at every level.”[9]

As the Treasury itself reports, educational mobility is low:
“The link between parents’ socioeconomic status and a child’s educational outcome is very high in New Zealand compared internationally, suggesting that New Zealand’s education system does not lean against socioeconomic background as much as the education systems of other countries.”[10]

Children who lack adequate food have difficulty concentrating, have lower academic achievement and poorer performance, especially in numeracy and literacy, and are more frequently absent or late to school than their peers.[11]

Are we doing enough?
In its first hearing, those in opposition to this Bill stated that
“We are ensuring that every child gets a great education. It is one of the most important things that we can do as a Government, and what we do in this regard raises the standard of living and creates a more productive economy, where every child has the opportunity as they go through our educational system to participate in it, achieve in it, and succeed in life.”[12]

Further, it was stated that the “intent of what this bill is about is being enacted already in our schools and in our communities.”[13] But the facts just don’t seem to support this. Even with existing programs in place, 80,000 children still do not get fed before school every day. It seems disingenuous to point to existing programs such as Fruit in School and KidsCan, and state that they are adequately addressing the problem despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

But whose responsibility is it?
I know a lot of opposition to measures such as this rest on the conflation of social and welfare spending as establishing a ‘nanny state’ in New Zealand. I’ll leave aside for today my feminist qualms about why the idea of government services being conceptually analogous to something like maternal care is such a terrible thing. 

But I will say that views such as the following, stated by Conservative Party leader Colin Craig, are terrible, short-sighted, and ridden with privileged conceptions of what poverty is and how to address it. Craig has said children sent to school without lunch should go without. Instead, their parents should be charged the "cost of rectifying their bad behaviour".[13]

Read that again. Thinking that parents who aren’t able to financially make ends meet are going to be able to pay for measures ‘rectifing their bad behaviour’ is actually ridiculous. Indebting them for something like this also inhibits their ability to provide for their children, exacerbating the very problem that this policy is trying to address. It’s also a terrible idea to punish or criminalise behaviours like this, as they tend to end up doing a lot more harm than (any) good.

Regarding how much individual responsibility each of you want to attribute to parents, keep two things in mind:
· “There is little hard evidence that poor people, as a group, are much worse than rich people in their capacity to manage their finances. The primary problem is that some parents simply don’t have enough income to provide adequately for their children.”[14]
· Secondly, even assuming that individual parents are blameworthy – allowing these children to ‘go without’ only punishes children at the end of the day, for the mistakes or reprehensible actions of their parents. And that should strike a chord with even the most libertarian of voters (I hope).

Who else supports this?
A host of people and organisations throughout New Zealand, including doctors and child poverty experts have expressed support for this policy. They include the following:

The Children’s Commissioner’s Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty Report recommend the development and implementation of a government-funded food in schools programme for decile 1 to 4 schools.

Mana has written to all 500 decile 1 and 2 schools throughout the country regarding the “Feed the Kids” bill. None have opposed the initiative.

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) released their Compulsory Schooling and Child Poverty report today which includes 10 recommendations for school policy development, including providing free breakfast and lunch in all decile 1-4 schools. They have stated that "…we believe that central government has a responsibility to provide leadership and resources to assist schools through a national strategy for food in ECEs and schools in low-decile neighbourhoods.”

Other organisations include:
· Plunket
· Save the Children
· Unicef NZ
· Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners
· Salvation Army
· Women’s Refuge NZ
· Choose Kids
· New Zealand Post Primary Teachers' Association

The cost
This policy would cost approximately $100 million per annum (including food, staffing, administration, monitoring, and evaluation costs). I’m not going to go through and crunch budget numbers. I know this seems like a lot to some people (including our current Prime Minister). Whether you consider the cost of this justified I guess depends a lot on what you consider to be the purpose, and role of government. It’s harder to justify the cost of this policy if you fall within the ‘tax-low, spend little’ umbrella, as opposition to this Bill largely does.

However, this really is a small price to pay for going a little way to ensuring basic health and educational needs of children in New Zealand, in line with our international requirements under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As social benefits and support measures have been peeled back in recent years, measures like this probably go some way to remedy that. You could also conceptualise this as a preventative health measures – money spent on programs such as this means less spent later for worse health outcomes. Investing in reducing child poverty early also ends up saving later expenditure in the health, education, social services and justice sectors.

Maanya Tandon is currently finishing a BA/LLB (Hons) at the University of Auckland. In her spare time she enjoys William Burroughs, wine, Mexican food, and raging against the machine.

[1] ‘Mana News’ Issue #2, June 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Children’s Commissioner Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty, “Solutions to Child Poverty in New Zealand: Evidence for Action”, at 15.
[4] Children’s Commissioner, Working Paper “A Framework for Food in Schools Programmes in New Zealand”, May 2013, 2.
[5] 3 News “No free lunches for hungry kids says Colin Craig”, 24 October 2012
[6] Smith & Brown, 2010 [cited in CPAG, 60]).
[7] Children’s Commissioner, Working Paper “A Framework for Food in Schools Programmes in New Zealand”, May 2013,3.
[8] Snook, I. & O’Neill, J. (2010). Social class and educational achievement: Beyond ideology. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 45(2), 3-18.
[9] Child Poverty Action Group, Compulsory Schooling Policy, 3 July 2014.
[10] Child Poverty Action Group, “Our children, our choice: priorities for policy series. Part 3: Compulsory schooling and child poverty” July 2014.
[11] Ibid, 16.
[12] Education (Breakfast and Lunch Programmes in Schools) Amendment Bill — First Reading, 28 May 2014, per Jonathan Young (National – New Plymouth).
[13] 3 News “No free lunches for hungry kids says Colin Craig”, 24 October 2012
[14] Children’s Commissioner Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty, “Solutions to Child Poverty in New Zealand: Evidence for Action”, 18.

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