Minister using outdated advice to justify cutting school lunches

The Associate Education Minister David Seymour is quoting a highly negative Treasury report on the Healthy School Lunches Programme to justify cuts, despite new evaluations that paint a much more positive picture.

The Treasury report, released in June 2023, was based on Ministry of Education evaluations from 2021 and 2022 and found the programme “contributed to happier and healthier ākonga overall”.

But it said the evaluations found “no impact on attendance, and ākonga Māori had not benefitted on most metrics, such as school functioning (e.g, paying attention in class), health and mental wellbeing.

The report also pointed to “inefficiencies” that needed addressing as “12 per cent of lunches (around 10,000 per day) are currently surplus to requirements”.

Since then, two reports have been released – one that specifically looked at ākonga Māori and another released in March with new analysis on attendance impact for the most underserved students.

The attendance analysis showed a statistically significant improvement in school attendance for the most disadvantaged students attending schools that receive the free lunch programme.

The Kaupapa Māori evaluation by the Ministry of Education presented evidence in July 2023 of benefits from the programme including improved attendance, positive shifts in behaviour and intellectual engagement in class.

As for waste, recent school and provider surveys from 2023 show surplus lunches of less than 5-10 per cent per day. This contrasts with the Treasury report finding of 12 per cent and shows improvements in efficiency continue to be achieved.

Given the huge array of benefits of healthy school lunches, including reduced hunger, improved nutrition, promotion of mental wellbeing, attendance, engagement and behaviour, it’s vital that decisions about its future are based on all available evidence, HCA co-chair Professor Boyd Swinburn said.

“It’s disappointing that the Minister responsible for Healthy Lunches Programme who says he is committed to significant cuts, doesn’t appear to be taking into account the most up-to-date information from his own Ministry.”

“In fact, despite the relatively short time the programme has been operating, there is a wealth of evidence showing it provides excellent value for taxpayer dollars. Mr Seymour should be looking to expand the Healthy School Lunches programme – not make cuts to it.”

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