Guest Blog: Danyl Strype – Living Together: On Meals in Schools and Community Gardening

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The main argument against schools in Aotearoa providing food to students, is that it is the parents’ responsibility to feed their own children. The people who make this argument would generally agree that it is also the parents’ responsibility to provide them with a primary and secondary education. Yet this does not usually translate into an argument for home schooling.

Instead, it is accepted without question that most parents will fulfil this responsibility by choosing a school to provide their children with education, and ensuring they attend. If schools can be trusted to supervise and educate children during school hours, why should this not extend to feeding them? Why should having a school provide food be characterised as a shirking of parental responsibility, when having that school provide education is not?

Consider that a school organised food program could be based on the latest research into the nutrition and energy needs of growing children, and enjoy the reduced costs of bulk buying ingredients. Schools could potentially give our children much healthier breakfasts, lunches, and morning and afternoon teas, at a fraction of what it would cost parents to provide it themselves.

Instead of having food rushed into them at home, before they need to leave for school, children could arrive at school and have a relaxed, sociable breakfast, knowing they only have to walk across the school in time for class to start. For parents, time spent packing cut lunches, or picking up snack packs from dairies, or supervising rushed breakfasts, could instead be quality time with children, or couple time. Depending on their own start times, parents could even have
breakfast with the children at school, creating opportunities for the school community to get to know one another, and making breakfast a relaxing and enjoyable way for families to start the day.

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When Parliament failed to give majority support to Hone Harawira’s ‘Food in Schools Bill’, it occurred to me that if the government are unwilling to properly fund school food programs, that doesn’t stop school communities taking direct action and organising such programs themselves. Schools whose principal, staff, and board support the concept of community eating at school could provide a dining area, perhaps the school hall or gym, and a supervising staff member each
morning and lunch time. Parents could pay a weekly subscription to the community eating budget, maybe on the Confucious principle (each family pays proportional to their level of income/ wealth), perhaps with a rebate for hours of time volunteered to help with food preparation, supervision, and clean-up.

The accounting (subscriptions, costs etc) could be handled by the school, the same way they handle the costs of camps, and field trips. A study could be conducted by academic economists and nutritionists to evaluate what parents normally spend on breakfast and lunch, and the quality of the food that buys, and compare this to the costs and benefits of community eating.

Then, a few weeks ago, I learnt about a Lower Hutt primary school community who have already taken this kind of direct action, and taken it to a whole new level.

“The Common Unity Project Aotearoa is an award-winning community-based urban farm project which grows food, skills and leadership with local families in Lower Hutt. With the help of volunteers we have converted an old soccer field at Epuni Primary School into a thriving vegetable garden and food forest, where we grow enough food to provide nutritious hot lunches to the school’s 101 students three days per week.”

The current government, on the advice of Treasury, would claim what these volunteers have achieved, on the smell of an oily rag, is impossibly expensive, and ineffective. The facts on the
ground say otherwise. If every school got a modest amount of secure financial and organisational support for a project like this, every school in the country could provide a healthy, hot lunch, five days a week, while educating children about where food comes from, and empowering them to get involved in growing their own.

Yet one of this government’s first actions on taking power was to defund organisations like the EnviroSchools Foundation which brings experienced organic growers and permaculture designers into schools as gardening tutors and environmental educators, and makes these kinds of projects more achievable. Instead of getting paid a secure wage or salary to do a really useful job, these tutors struggle to make ends meet financially, and many have to get public funding for their living costs anyway; through Work and Income. False economy at its finest, and fortunately some funding for Enviroschools was restored in 2012, with some encouragement from the Māori Party.

Sooner or later, the government must acknowledge the success of these pilot programs, and get behind them. In the meantime, volunteers are always welcome.

“We are looking for volunteers to help with a variety of tasks in our Unity Garden. We are continuously preparing soil, planting and tending our garden, building new structures and having fun. Please join us! We are looking for volunteers of any gardening ability, from beginners to skilled gardeners who can potentially lead community gardening sessions and/or workshops for us on a regular or adhoc basis. Bring your gardening skills or come prepared to learn. All help is welcome. Together, we grow. Please contact our Project Coordinator, Julia Milne, if you are interested in volunteering – julia@cupa.org.nz

10 COMMENTS

  1. Agreed.

    Let’s deduct a portion of the welfare payment and give it to the schools to feed the kids. Then at least we’re sure these poor little buggers get a decent meal every day.

  2. Just trying to be logical Frank. Let me explain:

    As I understand it, the current circumstance is that some kids go to school without having had breakfast and don’t have a packaged lunch. OK?

    Since I make a hot breakfast for myself for under a dollar (porridge oats) and Campbell Live was able to make sandwiches for under $2 per child, I can only presume:

    a) Maybe the parents are ignorant of their child’s nutritional needs

    b) Maybe they’re feral and don’t care about their child’s health & well being.

    c) The parents are both working and gave their child money to buy lunch but it was spent on lollies and coke.

    d) Combinations of the above

    Now I see no reason to increase the transfer of money from the middle class to the low class (via tax) to support incompetent parenting or willful neglect but at the same time it’s not the fault of the children who are at the centre of this disaster.

    Logical outcome: Deduct the money and provide school meals.

    • You left out the most obvious;

      e) Income is insufficient to meet outgoings. In many instances both parents are working, and it’s still not enough to pay for rent/mortgage, food, power, rates, insurance, medicines, clothing, shoes, fuel/transport, school fees, etc, etc, etc.

      You four options are parroted blame-gaming which serve only one purpose; to blame the victims of a neo-liberal system that funnels money upward, and keeps wages low. By blaming the poor and low-paid, you effectively give yourself a “free pass” not to look any further into the problem.

  3. Andrew’s comments were dealt with in the first few paragraphs of the post, making it clear he hasn’t even read (or hasn’t thought about) the post he’s replying to. I see no point repeating myself in comment. Go back to your Crosby-Textor masters Andrew, and tell them their time is nearly up.

  4. When I was a student at a state- funded Grammar School in England, between 1951 and 1956, the school had its own garden and kitchen to feed the 500+ students. We paid a small levy weekly, which was collected and accounted for by a teacher. I am sure that the kitchen had to buy in food too, but it was cost effective, nutritious food.
    I am impressed by what the Common Unity Project Aotearoa is achieving but I am aware (since I run a small gardening group at our local Primary school) that without government support not much can be achieved. Teachers dont have enough time and there is no space for gardening allocated on their curriculum .
    What Andrew misses in his usual rants is that having children fed decent food is not only cost effective but is most beneficial to those who need it most. If the Government funded the kitchens directly, it would inject money into the local community and create a few jobs. Isn’t that what the government is always rabbiting on about?
    In a few years food shortages are bound to occur, so failure to find room for gardening is incredibly short sighted

  5. I can only offer forth my learnings from running a food programme at a low decile school. We feed our children 3 days per week from what we grow – which could easily be 5 except our facilities are so inadequate. When I asked the MOE to support us (ie fix the holes in the school kitchen floor, the benches that are rotten) the response was no. That this Govt was not interested in food programmes, rather, they wanted schools to focus on high tech classrooms to create `learners of the 21st century`.
    I was bewildered to begin with, (like Andrew maybe) why families did not respond so enthusiastically when i offered home gardens, cooking classes etc. I soon was humbled when I realised this: Poverty is not just about money and empty cupboards. Its about a state of belief and total disempowerment. Its about feeling you have no personal currency or offering to define yourself by, therefore you are dependent. I have never met a person living like this who is not depressed and feeling hopeless. To say to the community I work with `you now just need to dig up the backyard and grow your food` is simply asking too much at times. Making the shift to feeling powerful enough to want to create change, break cycles, requires tolerance, understanding and compassion. When we are ready to acknowledge and hear the journeys of those imprisoned by the experience of poverty, instead of contempt and lack of understanding, we offer the chance of healing. For surely the citizen that shows no mercy, in the face of such ache in our communities, is the most impoverished of all?

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