Lunches in schools a win for children but burden of poverty still looms

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) welcomes the new Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy launched today by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Ministry for Children, which is intended to give effect to Government’s commitment to improving the wellbeing of children and young people in New Zealand

We applaud the Government on its announcement to pilot a free healthy lunches in schools programme, which has in the past been promoted by the Mana Party, and in recent years lobbied for by organisations like Eat Right, Be Bright. It is a policy CPAG has continually encouraged Governments to implement, and recommended as part of our submission on the Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy in its consultation phase.

“A commitment to exploring and evaluating what can make a meaningful impact in children’s lives using real tangible strategies, such as ensuring that children have regular healthy nutritious meals, is a critical step forward for this Government and we support this initiative wholeheartedly,” says Associate Professor Mike O’Brien, CPAG’s Social Security spokesperson.

Both the Lunches in Schools initiative and the Child and Youth Wellbeing strategy are significant developments toward ensuring the rights of all children and young people in Aotearoa are reinforced and upheld, and that they are supported to live good lives. 

To meet its objectives, the strategy and associated work programmes will need to provide real results for the 1 in 6 children (174,000) who are currently living with the worst of poverty, and most are supported by a welfare benefit.

O’Brien says that the barriers to child and youth wellbeing that have been identified will be only able to be comprehensively tackled if the Government has a strong, clear and committed focus on child poverty.

“Priorities should be ensuring that all children have real opportunities to maximise their abilities and skills and that families are well-supported to enable children to have these opportunities,” says O’Brien. 

“A plan for this needs to take shape quickly and in a really meaningful way especially for those who have very low family incomes. We have seen some good work so far from the Government with its Families Package, but very little of the success of that initiative will be seen for the 174,000 children living below the 40% (after housing costs) poverty measure.” 

CPAG is very pleased to see the strategy include the commitment to creating a fairer and more equitable welfare system, but more urgent initiatives to support children worst-affected by poverty are needed alongside the policy changes that are currently underway.

“The Lunches in Schools initiative will certainly support wellbeing in children, and we hope that the success of this programme is realised and that it is rolled out nationally,” says O’Brien. “However as evidence shows, what will make the most meaningful difference in children’s lives is there being sufficient family income so that they are protected from the multiple impacts of poverty; food insecurity is one of many.” 

CPAG says that one of the best ways the Government could improve child wellbeing in the short-term would be to reduce the amount of time struggling families have to wait for relief.

“An emergency package that provides for families on benefits in advance of more comprehensive welfare reform is an ideal first step to ensuring that families do not fall deeper into distress,” says O’Brien.

“This strategy is a really good start. Let’s build on this.”

CPAG calls on the Government to take some immediate first steps toward ensuring income adequacy. One of these is the extension of the Winter Energy Payment beyond the cut-off point in September to all families with children until benefit increases have been implemented. A second is to give the full Working for Families package to all low-income families regardless of hours worked, and a third is to increase the threshold for earned income for people who receive a benefit to at least 10 hours at the minimum wage, currently $177.

Subsequently, and also urgently, Government should adopt many of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s recommendations, especially those CPAG has indicated as priority. Alongside this, more affordable and state housing solutions are needed, as well as more adequate support for children in care and an extension of the Zero Fees scheme for primary healthcare (GP visits and prescriptions) to all children under the age of 18.

CPAG says that urgent provision of a family emergency package would give effect to the strong political commitment to progressing work on child poverty and to meeting the goals in the Child Poverty Reduction Act.

This would also mean the Government is a step closer toward meeting its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC), ensuring the rights of all children, whatever their circumstances, are upheld. 

Photo credit: Taylor Wilson @theotheragency