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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Food in schools

This week the Labour Party announced that it would be supporting the provision of food in low decile schools, in a way coat tailing on the election policy of the Mana Party.

This has spawned a lot of debate between those who think it promotes a lack of parental responsibility and those who think no child should ever go hungry, irrespective of their background.  

The argument behind providing food in schools is that it is estimated around 270,000 children are turning up to school without having had breakfast and without lunch. In a country that prides itself on fair equality of opportunity, the figure is astounding. Some will argue that the State has a duty to ensure that its citizens, especially the children, are not deprived of food. Critics of that argument suggest that it is the role of parents to provide food for their children and not the role of the State. 

So who should be responsible for feeding children during school hours?

Matt Nolan, an economist, who writes on the TVHE blog, suggests that as children are forced to be in an institution for most of the day, we ought to make sure that the institution provides the services required. His baseline for his argument is as follows: 
“We need to think about primary and secondary school education more clearly to get a good idea about the policy of free lunches.  Why do we provide this sort of education, and what does public provision achieve?  We provide this type of education to ensure there is equality of opportunity for individuals in society.  On that note, having shared lunches at school ensures the same thing – we know that appropriate nutrition at a young age is essential for the physical and mental development of an individual.  We know that, especially in low decile schools, there is a definite “underinvestment” in this attribute for kids"
I agree with this argument. The State specifies certain learning outcomes and in order to achieve those outcomes, every child needs to have the same starting point. While food is not the only factor influencing how a child learns, it is certainly a key factor for ensuring they have the energy to learn.

My issue with the policy proposed by Labour is that it does not go far enough. My view is that lunches provided by the State should be provided in all public and integrated schools. Without detracting from the issue of child poverty, my concern is that while some parents can afford to send their children to school with lunch, are they sending them with the appropriate food? Children’s lunchboxes are often packed with sugar.  The impact of sugar on a child's learning, in my view, has an effect similar to a child who has little to no lunch. When a child comes crashing down off the sugar, they are lethargic and lack the energy required to learn. It is common knowledge that in many Scandinavian countries, food in schools is standard practice, and this correlates to the relatively good health outcomes in those countries as well. Therefore, by providing lunches in all state funded schools, we could address the correlative issues of hunger and health.

Criticisms that I have heard or read about suggest that feeding children in schools does nothing to address parental responsibility. The assumption is that parents will get lazy and rely on the State to feed their child or children. That attitude is the result of a punitive mind and a lack of compassion through an inability to understand the complexity of the issues faced by parents raising children in poverty. Additionally, they label parents who are unable to feed their children as lazy, useless and negligent, as well as alcoholics, drug addicts, smokers, gamblers and so on. These “labels” do not belong to poor parents. Wealthy parents can also be lazy, useless, negligent, alcoholics. Drug addicts, smokers etc.  My point is that publicising these attitudes affects children and has a huge impact on their confidence. 

When I was at primary school and my mother was on a benefit, if we had no food for lunch, I would pretend I was sick so I didn't have to go to school, or at lunchtime I would go wait down the road outside the school grounds and tell my friends I was waiting for my lunch to be dropped off, or I would go hide in the cloak bay until the lunch bell rang and everyone had finished eating. Children feel the shame of their parents not being able to feed them and that shame comes from people characterising poor parents according to the labels mentioned above. 

Moving on, with all the socio-economic indicators aside, no parent wants to be in a situation where they are unable to provide lunch for their child or children at school. In fact, I would go as far as to say, that being unable to provide such necessities is likely to be a huge factor exacerbating the stresses that cause the above-mentioned problems. 

Punitive measures suggested by the critics of state funded lunches for children, would rather have poor parents criminalised for not providing lunch for their children or stopping their benefit. My view is that by addressing child poverty through penalising parents is counterproductive. Such penalties add further stress to these families, and stress does not make for good outcomes. 

Providing food in schools as a standard practice is more a rehabilitative approach. It signals to poorer families that the State will take care of the child at school and provide all that is necessary for that child during their time in the school and encourages the parents to take responsibility while the child or children are in the home. Critics will argue that this is highly idealistic. However, if the government makes clear that the raising of the child is a shared responsibility, then the parents can focus on ensuring that they can provide at the least the necessities at home removing the stress of wondering how they are going to provide those necessities for the child at school. The stress is diminished through knowing the State is supporting you, and through that co-operation, parents may start to see hope in their future and in their children's future.  I am not denying that some parents may still take advantage of the situation, but children should not bear the penalty of the choices made by their parents.