Jacinda Ardern: Free school lunches for thousands of kids

Opinion 24/02/2020

By Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister, New Zealand Labour Party Leader.

Chicken, carrot sticks and celery sticks, pasta salad, orange squares, corn chips... That’s what was on the menu at Flaxmere Primary last Thursday when Education Minister Chris Hipkins and I came to visit.

Minister Hipkins and I were there to celebrate the official rollout of our healthy school lunch programme – an initiative now in place for 7,000 students at 31 schools in Hawke’s Bay / Tairāwhiti and Bay of Plenty / Waiariki.

When I first announced the school lunches programme last August, I spoke a little about how, as part of our work to pull together our Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy, (of which school lunches is just one part), some 6,000 children shared their ideas on ‘what makes a good life’.

The feedback was clear: they wanted everyone to have everything they needed to thrive, like having healthy things to eat. We completely agree – child poverty is a complex issue to tackle, but one thing we can do straight away is make sure kids get at least one decent meal a day.

Putting food in schools seemed like such an obvious thing to do.

By 2021, free lunches will be rolled out to 120 schools and 20,000 students. In selecting schools, we’ve deliberately targeted areas that will help inform how to work differently in different areas –from big urban schools to small schools in rural areas.

On our visit to Flaxmere Primary, we saw that students were also using the food in schools programme as part of an inquiry project into healthy eating. It was great to see, because while putting lunches in schools is about making sure kids are eating, it’s also about teaching healthy eating, good habits, and what makes up a nutritious meal. Some schools also have gardening initiatives which they’re integrating with the programme, so students can learn more about where their food comes from, and even discover how to grow their own lunch.

Kids simply can’t learn on an empty stomach. A number of principals have already contacted me to say the simple act of providing a healthy, nutritious lunch is already making a difference in the classroom. We know that children are more likely to focus and achieve their full potential when they’re not worried about their next meal.

The programme is also creating jobs. At Flaxmere Primary, four new part-time jobs have been created to make the programme happen – from packing the reusable metal bento boxes every morning to delivering them to classrooms at lunchtimes. We expect to see more jobs created across many schools as the programme continues to roll out.

It’s clear that healthy lunches in schools means more than just a meal – it’s creating jobs for local families, helping our kids focus and learn, and setting the future generation up with skills that will last them a lifetime. All while helping to tackle the impacts of child poverty in New Zealand.

Our goal is to make New Zealand the best place in the world to be a child. That won’t happen overnight, but this takes us one step closer to that goal.

Jacinda Ardern is Prime Minister and Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party.