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Effecting Change, Government Policy, Hunger and Learning, Poverty & Socio-Economic Status and Education, SOSNZ

How Many Of Our Kids Are Learning On An Empty Stomach?

I’ve just watched Campbell Live, where they went into two different schools and asked a random class of Year 6 kids to put their lunch boxes on the desks and leave the room.

One school was a decile 10, and the lunch boxes were full to the brim with sandwiches, fruit, crackers, carrot sticks, and the odd sweet treat.  All but one child had eaten breakfast that day.  All children had fruit – eight of the kids had 3 or more pieces of fruit that day. One had a cream cheese and salmon bagel. I’d have happily taken any of those lunch boxes for myself or my wee lad for lunch.

The other school was a decile 1 and could not have been more different. The camera panned the room… row after row of empty tables. Whole tables of kids with not one morsel of food between them. Nothing. Where there was food it was a cookie or a bag of chippies, and maybe a can of soda.

Just pause for one moment and picture those totally empty tables.  Imagine that was you, your kids, your nieces and nephews. Imagine trying to work a six plus hour day with no food. Imagine the lucky one with the two slices of bread.

Of 27 children, none had fruit.  None had veg.  One had bread.  Nineteen had not eaten any form of breakfast.

This is in New Zealand, a first-world country.

Unicef’s report on Hunger and Learning, 2006 found that vitamin and mineral deficiencies may limit future capacity to learn (i.e. affect a learner’s basic characteristics and therefore their ability to utilize future learning opportunities).  Hunger also reduces children’s ability to take advantage of learning opportunities, by reducing school attendance (i.e. their access to these opportunities) and limiting attention spans (i.e. their ability to make the most of them).

World Hunger Series 2006: Hunger and Learning – Unicef (2006)

Reasons for Empty (or Non-Existent) Lunch Boxes

The headteacher of the decile 1 school on Campbell Live looked more than a little bit heartbroken as he admitted he know many kids went hungry but even he didn’t realise it was that bad in his school.  He said the parents of the kids in his school are mostly hard-working people who care for their children but find it very hard to make ends meet after paying bills.

People will understandably wonder what bills could come before feeding your child a decent lunch. The Child Poverty Action Group’s report Hunger for Learning describes “parents working long hours, often with multiple jobs, and insecure and/or overcrowded housing” as a huge factor in child hunger in New Zealand.  It also asserts that “There is little apparent public willingness to deal directly with hungry children in New Zealand.  Rather, most discussion centres on the culpability of parents, and their failure to adequately discharge their responsibilities to their children” and goes on to underscore that “These stereotypes both feed into and draw upon myths that create very real obstacles to addressing the problem in terms of children’s needs.”  “However, research published by the Families Commission found: “The low income group [in the survey] did not differ from others in terms of  behaviour such as budgeting for food, planning and eating meals as a family… The factor with the most impact on food security for New Zealand families included in this survey was economic” (C. Smith, Parnell, & Brown, 2010, p. 5).”

In the end, no matter what the reason, we need to act.  Why, because these are our children.  This is their education.

It is almost totally irrelevant who is to blame – what matters is that the kids are fed.

So What Can We Do?

Kidscan says it can provide all children in decile 1-4 schools with food every day for less than four million dollars.   They can find most of the money, it but would need a $1.8m from the Government.

Failing that, can basic, cheap meals not be provided in schools, like in the UK?  Those not on benefit pay for them, and those on benefit get them free.  Would it really be that hard to put something in place that gave kids a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a yoghurt and a biscuit each day?

Owairaka School and others have faulous initiatives in place, such as their make and take mornings.  Can we not find a way to roll those out further? There’s got to be something we can do, and not piecemeal but across the board.

Addressing Root Causes

The gap between rich and poor is getting wider and wider.   It’s not just that the rich are getting richer – the poor are getting poorer, too.

Is increasing the minimum wage really too much to ask?

Is removing GST from fruit and veg really that radical?

And there is no doubt a need for better nutritional education for parents, and this applies in all manner of communities.   I’ve seen plenty of kids in decile 7-10 schools with just a pot noodle for the day – it’s not just a problem for low decile areas.   Instead of TV campaigns about mantrol, maybe the government could fund some adverts that outline what a cheap but nutritious lunch might look like.

Because one thing’s for sure, when the kid in the class who has a cookie and some chippies and nothing else for lunch is the envy of most of the rest of the class, something serious has to be done.

~Dianne (SOSNZ)

Sources and further reading:

About Save Our Schools NZ

"One needs to be slow to form convictions, but once formed they must be defended against the heaviest odds." Gandhi


2 thoughts on “How Many Of Our Kids Are Learning On An Empty Stomach?

  1. This is some very powerful research, well done you for succinctly pulling together the very complex threats around poverty and hunger. You are right thought – whatever the reason, whatever we think about it – these kids are Kiwi’s and they deserve a fair suck of the sav!


    Posted by notchka | September 19, 2012, 11:47 pm

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