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Hundreds of Govt-funded school lunches being turned down by Hamilton students, while others miss out

Hundreds of Government-funded school lunches are being turned away by students in Hamilton, frustrating schools that missed out on the scheme.

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Each of the participating schools receives one free lunch for every student so as not to single anyone out as a lower-income household. Source: 1 NEWS

1 NEWS visited community centres in Hamilton which are each receiving up to 450 uneaten lunches a day from local schools that are part of the Government’s Ka Ora, Ka Ako programme, targeted at the schools that have the highest 25 per cent of socio-economic disadvantage nationally.

Yesterday, the Western Community Centre had around 450 pre-packed meals, Annie’s Corner had 80 meals, and Te Whare o te Ata in Fairfield had around 100. They’re just some of the centres that receive uneaten lunches from the Hamilton schools taking part.

“There are some days where there is a lot. I think that's about tweaking the menu and what’s offered,” Western Community Centre manager Neil Tolan says.

It’s frustrating for Ruawaro Combined School principal Sue Ewen, whose students — many of whom live rurally — don’t get lunches provided at all. Ewen says the school wasn’t invited to be part of the programme.

Around 440 lunches at the Western Community Centre in Hamilton. Source: 1 NEWS

“Some of these children have siblings at schools that do get the lunches at other schools and I feel they are missing out.

“Some of these children live on farms some distance from town and they do run low on supplies. We do have some students from time to time who don't have enough lunch and they get hungry.”

At Fairfield College, students who spoke to 1 NEWS are thankful for the lunches, but some meals get mixed reviews.

“We are grateful we get them because sometimes parents are struggling to get them for you… It depends on the day what time of lunch it is,” Tupoutu'a Tausisi says.

“Cheese and bread… I was like. 'Where’s the meat?'"

“We are all built, we have different likes and different tastes. If they're not being eaten then the poaka (pig) gets a good feed,” Meleane Tonga says.

Tobias Renner says he eats the meals because “it’s food”.

“Anything that’s there, I’ll eat it… Most of them are pretty good.”

Principal Richard Crawford says while the school lunch programme has been a “game changer”, he would like the uptake to be higher.

“I’ll be honest: Sometimes it’s 20, sometimes it’s as much as 200 still available at the end of the day. I would like it not to be that many.”

Schools that sign up to the programme get a lunch provided daily for every child on the roll. Crawford says he wouldn’t want to see that system change for his more than 700 students, as it might stigmatise some.

“Any system where we're identifying people because they’re qualified to get lunches, that’s discrimination. We don't want to have that as part of our school.”

1 NEWS understands there are sometimes so many lunches going spare even community centres can’t get rid of them all.

Students school lunches which ended up at Hamilton workplace. Source: Supplied

One Hamilton office worker who didn’t want to be named says she receives the leftover school lunches regularly at her workplace. She says she doesn’t really need them, but eats them so they don’t go to waste.

“I'm more shocked and disappointed that the kids are rejecting the meals in the first place and the quantity that have been going to waste because of it. There must be a better way to manage the numbers,” she says.

“At one stage we were receiving lunches daily. This lasted for around a month. It has slowed down now to maybe one or two every couple of weeks.”

Community centres say there is very little waste. Hamilton mum Lucy Te Hore picks up the lunches most days from Te Whare o Te Ata in Fairfield to help feed her whānau of nine.

“Every week is a struggle for me. I'm glad when I can get the leftover the lunches.

“We take it home and cook it up for a big meal. Salads and stuff, you can take it home and stir fry. If they don’t eat the sandwiches we take stuff out of the sandwiches.”

Unwanted school lunches received at Hamilton workplace. Source: Supplied

The centre's former manager, Michelle Motu-Heta, says the lunches are still benefiting families even if students don’t eat them.

“It sustains the parents. Most of the time the parents would rather starve than let their children starve, so feeding the parents will help them support the students into school and with their education.

“It would probably bring down the crime rate as wel. Most of these are done because people are desperate for food. Isn't that contributing to a stronger community and a stronger NZ/Aotearoa?”

The Ministry of Education's deputy secretary of sector enablement and support, Katrina Casey, says almost 215,000 students at 963 schools are now eligible to receive the funded school lunches. Spares will “decline over time”, she predicts. 

“As parents know, children’s tastes vary, and it can be challenging to provide healthy food they will eat. Untried lunches in the first term are a normal part of this transition. During this period, schools, suppliers, and the ministry work together to adjust menus and the quantity of lunches supplied.

“We are asking schools to provide information about uneaten lunches and what they do with them in their end of term reporting. There is, however, no requirement to count surplus lunches on a daily or weekly basis because we would expect the number to diminish over time.”

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said schools are “working very hard” to minimise leftovers and waste, but wouldn’t commit to sending spare lunches to schools that are currently missing out.

“The government’s made it’s commitments around which schools are going to get this. We are expanding the programme to over 200,000 kids, in the future there may be an opportunity to expand the programme to other children,” he said.

Do you have a story about school lunches in your part of the country? Contact our reporter Kristin Hall on kristin.hall@tvnz.co.nz