The Northland principals’ association president this week conducted a survey of students in the Northland region that are coming to school without lunch on average, and what he found is awful. On average, 22% of students arriving at school – 1092 of 7352 students covered by the survey so far – are coming to school without adequate food. At the extreme end, one school reported 83% – 90 of 108 students – are doing without. These numbers are unbelievably bad.
Our Prime Minister, of course, stands by his statement that the numbers are “relatively small”. Even in the face of evidence, he will not accept that there is a problem, what the principals’ association president calls a “crisis”.
Twenty-two percent. How is this even possible? Even if more schools report in and the percentage goes down due to better rates at those schools, the absolute numbers so far are terrible. More than a thousand kids going hungry – I’m running out of ways to say that it’s horrible.
Some kids are being fed and clothed by KidsCan (an amazing organisation that you should donate to if you can) and others are being fed by the schools. So most of these kids are not going hungry in the end. But schools should not be digging into their own budgets, teachers should not be digging into their own pockets, and we should not have to have a charity dedicated to this kind of poverty in a land of plenty! The government has the resources to feed those kids, and – as put by Jeff Bridges – “Poverty is a very complicated issue, but feeding a child isn’t”.
He’s right. The reasons behind why these kids are coming to school without food are complicated. Many families are so poor that there’s not enough food for lunch boxes – why? Unliveable benefits. Families bigger than what can be sustained on a single minimum wage, or even on two. Parents so busy that making lunch has slipped down a priority list. Parents that drink and smoke and gamble away the money. Parents that are just too lazy. Do I believe all of these scenarios? No, but they have all been proposed as possibilities.
Does it matter what the reasons are? Addressing many of these is difficult, and some require interventions that our society will not countenance, such as raising benefits to liveable levels or raising minimum wage to a living wage. People’s ideas about what the poor deserve run counter to the changes that would be needed in these cases. Effective addiction interventions are not always easily accessed, so society judges the addicts without offering a hand up. There are many (mostly conservative) values that would have to change to address the underlying issues that cause children to come to school without food.
Feeding the kids is easy. Food in schools programmes are not difficult to implement, and not terribly expensive. Estimates are around $10-14 million – which is around half the cost of a flag referendum, a cost that many aren’t seeing as particularly important.
Addressing poverty is hard. Feeding kids is easy – and we should. It is not these kids’ fault that their lunch boxes are empty (if they exist at all). Pontificating about parental responsibility and so on doesn’t fill empty bellies. We can fix the immediate problem, feed the kids that are struggling to learn on empty tummies, and then look at making sweeping changes to welfare, addiction, and parenting support. These kids are suffering while we argue about the rights and wrongs of their parents and the system, and it’s not ok.