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.
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 – firstname.lastname@example.org