Healthy school lunches alleviate hunger, poverty, mana: study

The latest research into the impact of the Ka Ora, Ka Ako – Aotearoa’s free school lunch programme – provides more important evidence of wide benefits including a reduction in food insecurity for students and whānau.

University of Auckland research fellow Pippa McKelvie-Sebileau and her research team conducted interviews with students, whānau and principals in four Hawke’s Bay schools for the study, published in Health Promotion International today. It is the first time the views of those most directly impacted have been recorded and presented by researchers.

Health Coalition Aotearoa (HCA) wants to see Ka Ora, Ka Ako expanded because we believe all children should flourish. A petition calling on the doubling of the programme was submitted to Parliament in June.

The Government agreed to fund the programme until the end of 2024 at its current size – 25 per cent of schools in the most disadvantaged areas. National Party leader Chris Luxon this week committed to retain the programme in its current form as long as it represented value for money.

Over 80 per cent of the families in the study were experiencing significant financial insecurity and 82 per cent identified as Māori.

Student participants in the study reported the lunches had alleviated hunger in a way that was mana-enhancing for everyone because everyone ate the same meal together.

For parents, the lunches had a big impact on their grocery bill and increased financial security.

Parents also commented on their child’s change in food preferences, towards healthier options.

“My daughter asked me to buy a pumpkin at the supermarket, ‘Mum, can we get a pumpkin?’ ‘What for?’ ‘Pumpkin soup’.”

The research found internal delivery models, such as having on-site cooks, achieved greater benefits and uptake by students than those with external caterers, including working through initial hesitancy.

Schools with an external caterer reported lower uptake of the lunches, and students were more likely to have a negative perception of the food provided. 

The principals said food insecurity was a huge problem, and student hunger had resulted in behavioural issues prior to the programme. They all wanted the programme to continue and were concerned about the potential impact of removing free lunches, having seen the benefits for their students and whānau.

McKelvie-Sebileau said the research showed improvements could be made in some cases such as involving school communities in the choice of lunch provider, increasing the attractiveness of the menus to limit food waste, and closing tuckshops at lunch time.

“They could get stricter on what schools need to do to make it work, like they cannot run a healthy food programme and sell lasagne toppers at the tuckshop.”

“The food environment needs to be protected, so the lunch programme is really valued and has the most impact.”

HCA co-chair Lisa Te Morenga said it was imperative the lunches were both high quality and tasted good.

“A lot of critics worry about food waste, but when the food tastes good, kids will eat it.”

She said providers cooking the food on-site had a lot more flexibility to respond readily to kid’s preferences and reduce food waste.


Pippa McKelvie-Sebileau: 0224608108

HCA co-chair Associate Professor Lisa Te Morenga: 0210427283

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