School meals bridge gaps in nutrition and alleviate food poverty: Seymour needs to back down

by | May 2, 2024 | Opinion

A new study published today has found that David Seymour is a bit of a dummy who should never have been allowed anywhere near a decision making role, let alone associate education minister or, god help us all, deputy prime minister. Oh wait. That’s not what it says but do bear with us.

The actual study, funded by the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, looked at community and school-led meal delivery programmes and their roles in the agrifood sector to understand what makes a programme successful or not. The outcomes of the study suggest that meal programmes, when they are executed thoughtfully, play a vital role in bridging gaps in nutrition and helping to alleviate food poverty, making it critical that they continue while being tailored better to who they are feeding.

Research co-leader Prof. Nitha Palakshappa says that it was essential to give children things that they want to eat. She explains: “For some students, if you give them macaroni cheese or spaghetti bolognese, then the chances are that they will recognise and eat it, because it is part of what they are already used to eating.  But if I were to give those same students a vegetable curry without at least explaining what it is first, then they’re less likely to eat it. And vice versa for students who prefer eating curries.”

The most successful programmes also ran food related classes to help slowly intruduce students to an unfamiliar food before it is added to meals. For example, the study revealed that teachers successfully piqued students’ interest in trying soybeans by teaching them about the food’s history.

Investing in an on-site kitchen was also a major factor in the success of a school meal programme. Preparing meals on campus meant that food looked and tasted fresher and was therefore more appealing to student. It also allowed schools to cater to the exact number of students attending on any given day resulting in less food waste – one of Seymour’s major gripes when he first launched his attack on the feeding of hungry children. But of course, putting kitchens in schools would require investment, and investment in the health and well-being of our children gets in the way of important stuff like tax cuts.

A particularly successful model was the Kura Kai Rangatahi programme, in which students cook the meals themselves during classes, also gaining NCEA credits. These ‘cook ups’ help to create a stronger connection to the food on their plates. Involving the students in budgeting, planning, and cooking some of the school meals gives them the knowledge and skills that they need to be able to feed their whānau and community.

“At the same time, they were working with horticulture experts in the community to ensure that there were gardens planted so that vegetables were immediately accessible for these cook ups,” says Nitha. “That meant students got to see how important it was to be in a place or a space where they had access to all these things that allowed them to eat well.”

Food programmes that keep rangatahi connected to cultural knowledge systems about culturally meaningful foods – from growing and harvesting through to cooking and preserving – help to strengthen cultural identity and wellbeing, as well as food security for the wider community.

When programmes work with local food growers or community gardens this helps to provide fresh, relevant ingredients for tailored meals more sustainably, to ensure better wellbeing for students and whānau.

This study, in conjunction with this University of Auckland reveiw,which shows a 20% uplift in the mental health of those students with access to school meals, show that the school meals programme is, contrary to David Seymour’s baseless claims, succeeding in its stated goals. The Our Land and Water study highlights areas in which schools could improve to make programmes more efficient and beneficial to students, but overall school meals are a success.

The battle now is to stop idealogues like Seymour undoing the progress that has already been made and to argue for the expansion of these programmes to the 60% of hungry children who do not yet have access to them.

About the Author

David Wrigley

David is a writer and musician from Kemureti/ Cambridge. He has been published in Noble Rot, Nourish Magazine, Turbine|Kapohau, New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, and is currently working on his first novel. He has done his time in restaurants in Aotearoa and the UK. Oh, yes. He has done his time.

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