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Food poverty keeping kids home from school

Georgie Hanafin
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Wasted fruit  Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

Government lunchbox guidelines and notes from teachers have some parents keeping kids home if they don't have appropriate food for school.

The guidelines were put together by both the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education to help schools develop a policy to promote and provide healthy foods and drinks. 

It follows three principles:

1. Offer a variety of healthy foods from the four food groups such as fruit, vegetables, grains, and healthy fats. 

2. Food should be prepared with, or contain, minimal saturated fat, salt and added sugar, and should be mostly whole or less processed.

3. Offer only water and unflavoured milk as drink options. 

The document states "establishing and following this policy shows your commitment to improving the wellbeing of students, staff and the school community," and lists the following as appropriate lunch food. 


"Plenty of vegetables and fruit. Grain foods, mostly wholegrain and naturally high in fibre. Milk and milk products, mostly low and reduced-fat. Legumes, nuts, seeds, fish and other seafood, eggs, poultry (eg, chicken) and/or red meat with fat removed."

Parents online say they understand the need for the guidelines, but some say the stress of finding appropriate food to send with the kids can cause lunchbox shame and embarrassment in both tamariki and their caregivers. 

As a result, some parents say they're having to keep their children home from school instead of sending them with a lunch that may be considered lacking by school staff. 

Sam Johnson* is a single dad to a young boy who started school this year.

The first term was tough financially for the man, who was made redundant from his career during the first Covid lockdown. 

"I had so many issues with WINZ recognising me as his dad anyway because their system can't recognise two primary carers, and because my ex-wife was receiving assistance from them, it really limited what help I was able to access."

Johnson is grateful his relationship with his ex-wife is good.

She helped cover his part of the uniform and school costs, but lunchbox food raised two separate issues. 

Their son has food-centric sensory issues and has a limited diet, and the food the school says is acceptable isn't always in his budget and often comes home day-after-day.

"The first few weeks I tried different fruit, but it kept coming back home. The cost of fresh fruit is insane and I can't afford to keep throwing it out," he says. 

"There have been days where I've been too embarrassed to send him to school because I couldn't afford the 'good food' that acts as prop in his lunchbox."

Sam Johnson
Sam Johnson and his son Photo: Georgie Hanafin

David Marra from Christchurch Budget Services is seeing more high-medium income earners facing Covid-related income drops requesting help. 

He says many Cantabrians may be facing food poverty for the first time. 

"Income drops for any number of reasons. The struggle to keep up with the Joneses who may have once been their financial equals is really hard."

He says there are lots of alternatives to supermarkets popping up around Christchurch, with many fruit and veggie markets particularly scattered along Marshland Road. 

"Work with friends and neighbours. Share stuff like one big cabbage and cut it up three ways. Get involved in the Christchurch Community Gardens," he suggested. 

Other advice the budgeting service usually offers clients in these situations is to buy in bulk and share with family, only eating in season when possible, and buying longer-lasting frozen veggies over fresh. 

His final piece of advice? 

"Don’t get too fussy about producing gourmet sandwiches. You aren’t competing. My grandson had what he called 'jam' sandwiches. Two slices of bread and margarine jammed together is one 'jam sandwich'."

Pak n Save supermarket have similar suggestions online, except market it as a 'deconstruction'. The website suggests adding luncheon or shaved ham, and grated cheese for the kids to construct their own lunch when it's time.