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Fill tummies, grow minds and have #ZeroHunger in Aotearoa

On World Food Day, let’s really talk about about securing #ZeroHunger schools in New Zealand where every child is nutritiously fed at every school every day, as a right.

Today is World Food Day when the United Nations promotes worldwide action for those who suffer from hunger and for the need to ensure food security and nutritious diets for all. They want a Zero Hunger world by 2030 and so do I. Especially, I want to lift up children in New Zealand through securing Zero Hunger in our schools.

In 2015 the global community, including New Zealand, adopted the 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development to improve people’s lives by 2030. Goal 2 of Zero Hunger pledges to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition. Eradicating hunger and malnutrition is one of the great challenges of our time. Not only do the consequences of not enough, or the wrong, food cause suffering and poor health, they also compromise progress for people in many other areas like education and employment. Progress that benefits everyone.

So far all so worthy, right, but is it really relevant to us in New Zealand?

We are one of the few countries that does not feed its kids at school. In fact, most countries around the world have national, centrally-resourced school food programmes. They have long understood that these programmes have multiple benefits and are important vehicles to provide a safety net for children offering a vital social protection. They protect children from the full impact of economic shocks. They support the most vulnerable children through the provision of food. They contribute to learning by increasing a child’s readiness to learn and ability to participate in their own educational process through maintaining their nutritional status and overall health. Fundamentally, these countries overseas acknowledge that these programmes support a child’s rights, under the UN Convention for the Rights of a Child which New Zealand has signed, to an an education based on equal opportunity and to health. Children in New Zealand have no equivalent protection system here.

There is also clearly a need in New Zealand: Inequality is growing and higher than the average in the OECD. 14% of children lived in poverty in 1982. Today, poverty has increased and affects 27% of all children, almost 300,000. Three out of five  of children in poverty are likely to live this way for many years. 40% of children in poverty are in families where there is an adult in full-time paid work – so this is increasingly affecting more of us than we have traditionally thought.

KidsCan have said that they think approximately 22% of all children in decile 1-4 schools, where they distribute their non-perishable food packages, need lunches during a week. Anecdotally, we have been told by teachers in all deciles that children come to school without lunch and they often feed children from their own pockets. So the exact number is unclear and it is not officially  measured. We know it is common for children to miss school and so miss out on their education due to stigma of having no food to bring and low-income families in New Zealand often do not have enough money to buy the food needed for adequate nutrition. Ten years ago, the last time there was a national nutrition survey, only 59% of the population were fully food secure, down from 72% in 1997. In 2012, more than 40% of secondary school students in New Zealand reported concerns about food insecurity and this was significantly higher than 2007. We are all aware that food prices have only increased since then.

This food insecurity, this food poverty all impacts inevitably on the health and wellbeing of our children and their ability to fulfil their potential at school and in life. Cheap food which satisfies  our hunger is often high in energy but low in the nutrients we need to fuel and nourish our bodies and minds. This all contributes to children being sick more, leading to more days off school. It contributes to children being obese yet also malnourished at the same time. One in three children in New Zealand are overweight or obese and New Zealand is now the third most obese nation in the OECD. Yet, one in three children admitted to Starship Hospital are malnourished to some degree.

But don’t take my word for it, this is how a group of researchers put it just this year in the British Medical Journal: “ The harmful consequences of insufficient food or food of poor nutritional value, particularly for children, are well established and have immediate and long term implications. These include poor growth; overweight and obesity; and the growing incidence of coronary heart disease, type II diabetes, and cancer. Suboptimal diets and food habits such as skipping meals are also associated with poor cognition and lower academic achievement. Moreover, food poverty has social and psychological dimensions that are especially important for children. While parents’ sacrifices can protect their children from food shortages, the indirect effects of food poverty penetrate deeply into the “emotional heartland of children’s personal and family lives”.

I am not the first to say all of this. But if we know all this and keep being told all of this, why do we continue to throw our hands in the air and look the other way again while charities shoulder a need that grows? We can put in place the structural mechanism to support our children, their education, create change. Ultimately, we could see every child getting an academic and health boost from a nutritious school lunch programme in every school. For children most in need, that boost could be greatest, provided with dignity and free from any stigma of being targeted or having to put their hand up for food at school. A brighter, healthier generation can only benefit all of us, every individual, in New Zealand in the future.

If we want to see a world, a New Zealand, free of hunger by 2030 then all of us together - government, citizens, experts, civil society organizations, the private sector and, yes, ultimately central funding from taxpayers - must play their part to invest, innovate and create secure,  lasting solutions. A national school lunch programme where every child is fed nutritiously at every school every day is a key tool for securing this future. Aotearoa’s children deserve the right to learn and achieve, whoever they are, and they will do that best with full and happy tummies. #ZeroHunger

For Zero Hunger Schools in New Zealand, sign Eat Right Be Bright’s petition here.

About the author:

Becky Little is part of Eat Right Be Bright, an organisation originally founded by a group of women to secure a better future for children in Aotearoa where every child is fed nutritiously at every school school every day. To find out more visit www.eatrightbebright.org.nz