To feed or not to feed . . .

An animation to raise awareness about the issue of child poverty in NZ, and the need for food in schools programmes, has  been released by an educational research project at The University of Auckland.

. . . “NZ is a first world country with a child poverty problem. Poor nutrition is a significant problem in NZ.” says project coordinator, Dr Airini, Head of School of Critical Studies in Education at The University of Auckland. “We have hungry children in our schools. Going to school hungry affects a child’s ability to learn. Healthy food helps children learn. With better education our children might escape the poverty cycle.”

Providing food in schools is likely to be a modest cost compared to the societal benefits of a giving all Kiwi children a healthy start to life. Estimates for implementing food in schools programmes range from $5-$10million a year. Programmes like these promote a healthy diet, and improve children’s school attendance, behaviour, and ability to learn. Breakfast clubs also provide a safe, early morning place to increase social skills and confidence, creating a better school environment.

“Learning is a physical activity. Children need healthy food every day to help them be learning-ready” says Dr Airini. “We wouldn’t expect our All Blacks or Silver Ferns to do their best if they’re hungry. Why would we think children could do their best as learners if they’re hungry? Good food feeds the mind.”

“Teachers, schools and community groups say we need to provide food in schools to help our hungry children”, she says. “In the end, it’s not just hungry kids that benefit, but all New Zealanders.” . . .

This and the animation are pushing the case for someone – community groups, businesses, the government – to provide food in schools.

But over at Offsetting Behaviour Dr Eric Crampton shows that providing food doesn’t necessarily do any good:

A few months ago, Social Service Providers Aotearoa asked me to review the literature on school breakfast programmes and provide an assessment of whether public funding of school breakfast programmes offered value for money.  . .

I was only looking at school breakfast programmes, and so I can’t here comment on school lunch programmes. I’m not sure why we’d expect results to vary greatly, but it’s worth having the caveat.

Anyway, on my best read of the literature, it’s hard to make a case for that we’d get any great benefit from the programmes. Rather, we often find that they don’t even increase the odds that kids eat breakfast at all. Many shift breakfast from at-home to at-school, but among those who hadn’t bothered with breakfast before the programme, not many wind up starting when schools provide it. You can then get kids reporting that they’re less hungry as consequence of the programmes, but it’s awfully hard to reject that the main thing going on is that kids are eating at 9 at school instead of at 7 at home and are consequently less hungry when asked at 11. . . .

So, some bottom lines:

  • School breakfast programmes really don’t seem to increase the likelihood of that kids eat breakfast at all;
  • To the extent that they improve outcomes in some studies, we really can’t tell:
    • whether the effect is from changing the timing of breakfast, in which case we should instead have a morning tea break;
    • whether the effect is any better than just giving those families an equivalent cash transfer. . .

Hungry children won’t be happy children, ready and able to learn as well as those who are properly fed.

Poor nutrition and sub-optimal learning in childhood will almost certainly lead to problems later in life.

But the research shows the solution to children who don’t have enough to eat isn’t as simple as providing food.

Not all schools have chosen to be part of Fonterra’s milk in schools programme which shows a blanket approach wouldn’t be welcome.

It’s a complex problem and the solution must be one which really makes a positive difference.

7 Responses to To feed or not to feed . . .

  1. Dave Kennedy says:

    Obviously there is a strong correlation between falling family incomes and child poverty. Maori and Pasifika families are heavily represented in poverty statistics and the median household incomes for these groups have fallen by $40 and $65 dollars respectively over the last four years. The problems we are experiencing with child poverty are because of low wages, unemployment and shocking housing conditions.

    Food in schools is just a little bandaid. We need to increase numbers of lower cost housing, raise housing standards and expect landlords to meet them, lift the minimum wage to a living wage (hats off to the Warehouse, but many large employers refuse to raise wages even though they can) and provide more support for our manufacturers by giving the Reserve Bank more tools to control the value of the NZ dollar.

    I am concerned that the budget will just throw sums of money into dealing with the effects of poverty not the causes Considering that poverty costs the country over $6 billion a year, I bet the solutions will involve millions not the billions that will make a real difference. A malnourished, poorly educated and supported child of today will be a burden on society for the rest of their lives. We are only creating huge future debts if we don’t make decisive decisions now.

  2. TraceyS says:

    “Hungry children won’t be happy children, ready and able to learn as well as those who are properly fed.”

    And nor will a child who received a round of physical or verbal abuse just the night before. It won’t matter how full their tummy is.

    Strengthening the parents and caregivers tackles both problems.

  3. TraceyS says:

    I agree with a lot of what you say above Dave. But I think the nutrition problem is much bigger than is obvious. You’re a teacher aren’t you? You might then have noticed the number of undernourished children from all walks of life. Dark circles (iron deficient), tendency to break bones easily, skin conditions, frequent need for antibiotics and so on. In fact some of the saddest looking kids I see are from the much better off families. Maybe they are lacking the time to cook proper meals?

    Proper food is not expensive relative to nutrient content. Milk, mass-produced eggs, potatoes, pumpkin, factory chicken, corn, peas, kumara etc. Now I personally don’t like factory farming of eggs and chicken but I’d rather see we have these cheap sources of protein and nutrients available than have kids growing up on processed grain-based rubbish food.

  4. Dave Kennedy says:

    I agree, Tracey, the Green Party are trying to sort out a policy where problems in families can be identified early and appropriate support offered. Children aged between 0-7 are probably the most important to focus on and making sure that it is the whole child that we look at not just literacy and numeracy. In many European countries formal schooling doesn’t start until 7 years, it is probably more important to focus on family support and general well being. We also need to improve the transition between early childhood education and starting primary school so that support being provided earlier is continued unless evidence shows otherwise. We also need to lower the threshold to access support, Special Education Services can only deal with the worst 1% and those that miss this arbitrary threshold miss out even though numbers of high needs children are increasing. RTLBs aren’t trained to deal with high needs kids. we probably need trained nurses attached to low decile schools as well as social workers, too much is being dumped onto teachers.

  5. Dave Kennedy says:

    I don’t disagree with the need to feed children, just that it is not the solution for addressing the cause of hunger.

  6. Armchair Critic says:

    I suspect that National believe we should let them eat cake, Dave.

  7. TraceyS says:


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