Food for Thought – Free of charge school lunches

Pii-Tuulia Nikula

Few would disagree with the contention that all children deserve healthy, nutritious meals before, during, and after their school days, yet there is plenty of evidence showing how food insecurity and malnourishment are prevalent issues among many New Zealand school children. However, there is less consensus on whether the government should take a proactive role in this area and provide free (of charge) lunches in New Zealand schools as is common in some other OECD countries. In the past five years this type of policy has been advocated by multiple stakeholders, such as the Green Party, the Child Poverty Advocacy Group, and the Children’s Commissioner, and more recently by the Mothers United Movement. The new Government is yet to state its stance on this area, and for instance, the KidsCan charity providing lunches to low decile schools is still waiting for a decision on whether or not its Government funding continues.

In the New Zealand context, some would object a school lunch scheme pointing out to parents’ financial responsibility for their kids, or stating their concerns about the type of food provided (e.g. see the comments on this article). To address both these questions – it is good to emphasise that children should be at the heart of this policy – not the parents. Children should have a right to school lunches irrespective of their parents’ ability to provide one. Moreover, the positive outcomes would be likely to exceed any costs of funding such a programme. The positive connections in this area come in the form of better well-being as a result of healthier eating behaviour and increased school attendance. Even though more robust research is needed to validate the link between school lunch programmes and educational outcomes, some recent studies have established positive connections in this area (e.g. Belot et al., 2009; Anderson, 2017;.Frisvold, 2015).

Whereas the claim for children at need is more compelling, there are important reasons to consider universal provision. Firstly, it is questionable whether most parents from any type of background have sufficient understanding of what a healthy lunch should look like. For instance, in a UK study, only one per cent of lunchboxes were found to meet the nutrient standards. Similarly, in the New Zealand context, a research study established that even in medium and high decile schools lunchboxes were high in fat, salt and sugar, and lacking fruit and vegetables. Similar issues with the lunchbox content have also been reported more recently in New Zealand. Hence, a well-designed universal scheme would bring the benefits of nutritious, healthy food for everyone; and at the same time remove any stigma related to targeted programmes. Also, by engaging middle and upper-class families, universal provision can help ensure that the quality of the school lunches will not be compromised over time. A wide support base is important because “Benefits meant exclusively for the poor often end up being poor benefits” (Sen, 1994, p. 14).

In this context, the second question about the ‘freedom of choice’ should be of limited concern if the health of children is considered more important than the ‘authority of parents’. However, a successful lunchbox scheme would need to have sufficient choice (e.g. vegetarian, different allergies) and go beyond providing sufficient calorie intake. It would need to have ‘healthy, nutritious and tasty’ at heart to yield the greatest benefits. Hence, any policy design should follow the advice given by the World Food Programme and Children’s Commissioner emphasising the fact that the benefits are dependent on the details of the scheme, and that a “careful design, implementation and evaluation are clearly very important in this area” (CC, 2013, p. 12). For those parents wanting their children to follow a special diet (such as all organic) without clear medical reasons, an opt-out provision may need to be considered.

An example of a universal free of charge school meal model is the Finnish system which is celebrating its 70 years anniversary this year. Currently the system covers all levels of schooling from primary until the end of high school, providing daily meals for around 900,000 children and teenagers. The Finnish model does not stop after high school, but there is a separate scheme targeted to tertiary students who benefit from generous meal subsidies and government set health and nutrition guidelines in student cafeterias.

The Finnish (pre-tertiary) school lunch scheme includes a warm meal, required to meet the set guidelines for health and nutrition. A recommended meal includes half a plate of vegetables, one quarter of potatoes, rice, or pasta, and one quarter of fish, meat, or beans; and occasionally, berries/fruit for dessert.  In addition, different individual dietary requirements are catered for. According to the Finnish National Agency, the key objective of the scheme is “to maintain and improve pupils’ health and well-being and to give them energy for their school work” (OPH, p. 4). The scheme also has other learning objectives, such as teaching manners, nutritional education, and recreational aspects. Clearly, no scheme is perfect, and some of the recent criticism includes the limited time period allocated for the lunches. Also, the usage of the free meals among intermediate level students (e.g. 13-15 year old) has been an issue as every third student is skipping at least one meal a week. To address these issues, a recent research recommends that children and teenagers as the main stakeholders, should be more closely engaged in the school meal planning process.

In Finland the average annual cost of the lunch provision across municipalities was around $890 per primary school student in 2016. Assuming similar food costs for all schooling levels, running a comparable meal plan for the New Zealand roll of 800 000 children and teenagers would cost at around $720 million. So far most meal plans recommended for New Zealand have been targeted to only low decile schools and excluded the high school level, explaining the significantly lower budget needs of around $10 – 14 million a year, such as the Green Party’s 2014 plan; the Children’s Commissioner’s report and the Child Poverty Action Group’s breakfast plan.

However, the universal scheme such as promoted by the ‘Eat Right, Be Right’ campaign does have some clear merits. The cost of the scheme should be contrasted to the long-term benefits. However, the government could also consider starting with a targeted system, which could be gradually extended over a longer period of time. The objectives of the scheme should be clearly defined and the content of the meals negotiated collaboratively. Overseas examples, such as the Finnish, should be used for guidance and to identify well-known issues.

To provide the best future for our own children, we need to start looking beyond our immediate families and consider the well-being of all children equally important. In the context, a free of charge meal plan is a small step in the right direction.

Pii-Tuulia Nikula
About the author

Pii-Tuulia Nikula

Pii-Tuulia Nikula is an education and public policy expert with a special interest in issues related to contemporary education systems and social policy initiatives in New Zealand and Finland. Pii-Tuulia holds a PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Auckland. She is currently working as a lecturer at EIT in Napier.