The power of Manaakitanga: The socially-inclusive practice of sharing food amongst high school students.

The essence of ‘manaakitanga’ is in demonstrating hospitality, showing respect and generosity and providing support for others. It is the foundation for cultivating relationships based on kindness, aroha and empowerment, relationships which strengthen the body and soul and which are the backbone of strong community networks. These are principles of Tikanga Māori that can be applied in every part of our society, including in the provision of kai to our tamariki and rangatahi in the education environment. 

Another way to consider manaakitanga is in the sharing of resources to ensure that everyone benefits, and no-one misses out. This spirit or essence of manaakitanga has been eloquently expressed by Raina Theile, a native Alaskan who worked at the White House under Barack Obama:

“The people who have occupied Alaska’s lands for thousands of years may not always be wealthy in financial resources, but they are rich in knowledge, authenticity and love. Our cultures derive strength directly from the wisdom and spirit of our ancestors. Our stories, our hospitality and humour can disarm the toughest veneer and inspire the strongest human connections.”

All over the world, teachers comment about how hard it is to teach “tired, hungry, sick, failing and cranky kids … who either come to school late or don’t show up at all”. To help redress this, an initiative in Aotearoa has been carried out by a learning centre involved in assisting and supporting South Auckland high school students back into education. As one whaea (female teacher) taking part in the initiative aptly noted: “Our kids are starving in their physical and spiritual beings.” In answer to this need, the whaea developed a school lunch programme for a small-scale cohort with rangatahi (young people) aged between 12 and 15 years, as a demonstration of their manaakitanga towards those in their care, to provide a pathway to good life outcomes and engage rangatahi as an important part of the community.

Over the past decade years the tummies of hungry school children have been partially filled with stop-gap measures running through primary and intermediate schools – the likes of charities such as KidsCan, social enterprises such as Eat My Lunch, sponsored government programmes such as Fonterra Milk in Schools and Fruit in Schools (FIS), worthy initiatives such as Garden to Table, as well as a raft of other groups working to provide for the lack within their communities. Caring volunteers, nurses, teachers and school boards have ‘stepped up’ to provide nourishment via breakfast clubs and school lunches. Cooking classes have been offered to students and parents and edible gardens tended. Food Bank allocations also include some provisions that can be used in school lunches.

These are all positive responses to the desperate need in Aotearoa, and are helpful for children across the board. A healthy, varied diet is essential for children to have the energy for learning and development, and to help fight off poverty-related illnesses. When they eat together as part of their schooling, they participate in a routine that normalises healthy eating as a central part of their lives. New varieties and different tasting foods have been introduced through these programmes, many of which are beyond the reach of families on low incomes.

But it is not as if the exit from childhood into adolescence dims hunger, for the most part, quite the opposite. Charity provision drops off, and students who experience shame and stigma associated with having less than their peers, are less likely to take up any offering. Food scarcity among high school students may be a precursor to truancy, poor learning outcomes, and behavioural problems that may have life-long impacts. Staff at a local high school I have been involved with reported they had seen four boys fighting over one sandwich during break time. Some children may come to school at the beginning of the week with money to buy an unhealthy lunch, only to eat nothing for the rest of the week, when money runs out.

In America school lunches were originally introduced during a time of extreme hardship. As the scheme continued it was found schools supplying food, played a pivotal role in health and wellbeing. The degree to which these schemes succeeded was tied to the prevailing (state/local) educational policies and political aspirations of the times. But state-funded school lunch programmes are beset with the usual management battles, funding misappropriation and administrative hurdles. The schemes are now fighting budget cuts which are justified by downplaying the impact of hunger in children’s educational achievement.

Research evidence is mixed; some studies (which excluded the deprivation indices) showing the link between academic achievement and universal school lunches was weak. However, there are contradictory studies which have shown that timely access to food during a school day enhances mathematical conceptualisation. The ability to do mathematics can be improved when anaemic children’s diets are fortified with iron.

The significance of communal school dining was captured by a Brisbane weekend newspaper earlier last year. The paper ran a comparison of elite boarding schools in the area. Shared meal times featured largely in most of these schools as a prized draw card. The benefits of communal dining were ‘sold’ as part of the basis of a well-functioning school. This daily ritual reinforces socialisation, as around the meal table, students are supported as they interact with each other and their teachers in meaningful ways. In Christchurch, post-earthquake, a school following the Eat Play Learn model and with the guidance of Dr. Kathleen Liberty, has been able to demonstrate that eating together fostered a sense of equanimity in children who have been suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

In May 2006 academic and Guardian columnist George Monbiot noted   studies conducted on young offenders found a high prevalence of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. He referred to Bernard Gesh’s 2002 article in The Ecologist which stated that, "Having a bad diet is now a better predictor of future violence than past violent behaviour.” This is particularly relevant for New Zealand, where low incomes limit food choices.

Monbiot cited a double blind, controlled experiment where male youth offenders aged between 13 and 17 years were given nutritional support. The link between the advantageous effects of good food and behaviour was pronounced. Youths who had supplemented diets recorded an 80% reduction in violent incidences. After 13 weeks of improved nutrition, electroencephalograph records showed positive shifts in brainwave patterns.

Educators have commented that when food is brought into the learning environment it becomes a window through which culture and identity can be explored[1]. Eating together promotes social equity and helps decrease the stigmatisation associated with poverty.

An important aspect of putting children first in policies and practices, is to seek their input. The students at the centre I mentioned earlier were canvassed for their opinions about eating a communal lunch. The majority said the most enjoyable aspect of shared dining was eating and talking together. The students also strongly recommended that additional protein sources should be included in their meals. For some, the lunch at school was their main meal of the day, while most students said they would attend school more if lunches were provided.

Evidence of school lunch programmes increasing attendance has been shown internationally, where in parts of Nepal, India and Australia under the Food for People programme (FPP), it has been found that when lunches are provided at schools in impoverished regions, school attendance increases and academic levels are lifted. FPP also reported that the when the kids were fed and were thriving, the surrounding communities also prospered.

This idea to feed students at secondary school is still coming through the back door of the Marae, so to speak. It is a fledgling initiative occurring sporadically in order to address the need, and at the moment, there is little possibility of implementing nationally-directed under the ministries of Education or Social Development. But, as one kuia said, “we must paddle together in the same direction otherwise we will never reach our destination”.  By focusing on the benefits of shared dining through transparent and inclusive programmes, we can stop apportioning blame for lack of food on to poor parenting and the whakama (shame) associated with getting a free school lunch can be wiped out.

While the continued implementation of food programmes requires a committed and consistent level of professional and voluntary involvement and care, acknowledgment must also go to the parents and caregivers, who have over decades of low wages and high rents, kept striving to feed their kids and send them to school.

The complete nourishment of our children is too important to be left to charity, and government policies can and should redress the glaring social inequity. If we actually value and uphold the taonga and dignity of our rangatahi, so too must we feed them. Manaakitanga, which is working at a holistic level to support some high school students, in the one of the poorest areas of our country is an elegant and shining example of an effective policy.

[1] Ekert, P. (1989). Jocks and burnouts : Social categories and identity in the high school.

Photo credit: Taylor Wilson @theotheragency