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Free school lunches is a good start – but more is needed

News

30 August 2019

Opinion

We New Zealanders are fair and compassionate. We believe everyone deserves a fair go. And we have a proud history of supporting our children directly. Anyone with a similar number of grey hairs to me will remember free milk at school.

But, right now, 1 in 5 of our kids don’t have access to enough food or the right kind of food. Throughout New Zealand, kiwi kids are going to school hungry every day – too distracted by hunger to engage in learning or school life as well as they should.

So, yesterday’s announcement by the government of free lunches in schools is a red-letter day. It’s a positive step towards addressing one of the major issues of child poverty – food insecurity.

I look forward to the day when free school lunches are universal in all primary and secondary schools, irrespective of decile. There are real benefits here in improved learning outcomes and better health and wellbeing, that far outweighs the costs.

I know it’s not the whole solution. While the government needs to significantly increase benefit levels, as recommended by the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, this is another and direct way we can support those children who most need that fair go.

Many people may not know it yet, but this week was historic for New Zealand. Attracting less attention at yesterday’s free lunch, but I would argue of greater significance, is the government’s Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy.

Our government, for the first time ever, has prioritised the wellbeing of children and young people. I believe this Strategy is a once-in-a-generation platform to get things right for our children. It is hugely significant to have a long-term, cross-government strategy to improve child and youth wellbeing. It’s world-leading.

More than 6,000 children and young people helped to create the Strategy.  Its six desired outcomes represent what those 6,000 children and young people need, what they told us they want, and what they have a right to expect in their lives.

To them, a good life is one where they can feel accepted, valued and respected, be happy, have the support of family and friends, have their basic needs met, enjoy good physical and mental health, have a good education and feel safe.

Children and young people have expertise in their own lives. It is their right under the Children’s Convention to have their voices heard, and seriously considered, on matters that affect them.

The Strategy mandates on-going consultation with children and young people.  This is a fantastic way to ensure their voices continue to be at the heart of this work.

I will go one further and suggest consultation with children and young people should be embedded into more of our legislation. The views of children and young people have real value, always improve policies and have the potential to make our society even better.

Together, with supportive actions from the communities that nurture children and young people, this Strategy has the potential for transformative change. But, good implementation of the Strategy will be the key to its success. We will need every government department and community organisation working together to achieve real change for children.

I acknowledge this is just the first Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy. It’s a tremendous starting point and a solid foundation to build on. I am excited by the potential for real positive change in the lives of children and young people because of it.

And I do also look forward to helping hold this, and subsequent governments, accountable for its success. I won’t be giving the government a free lunch. At least not until the job is done.

- Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft