Opting in for food in schools

Growing up with a poor single parent and a well off grandparent made for an interesting childhood. At 7 I was pulled from my decile 3 school and put in one of the most prestigious primary schools in the country for ‘the sake of my education’. We had uniforms and prefects at my new school. I was by far the poorest kid there, and it wasn’t a fun time.

It meant that I spent my days with the children of cardiac surgeons, ambassadors and big-name business founders. I then went home to a state house with a solo mum on the DPB, who more than once met me after school with a change of clothes because we had a WINZ appointment and god forbid they see that my grandmother pays for my education. They might expect her to pay for everything else. Or they might think we’re secretly paying for it ourselves with our secret hordes of money stored under the cigarette burnt tiles in our lounge.

When the Prime Minister announced the new “partnership” model to put free breakfasts in schools to “every school who wants it” I cringed. I mean I was already cringing at the idea of corporate sponsorship for basic human need, but I cringed harder.

In numerous countries, breakfasts or hot lunches are commonplace in the majority of schools. It isn’t seen as a poverty elevation “hand out”, it has nothing to do with parental responsibility, it is part of going to school. It helps kids learn, helps them feel settled and cared for and adds a communal element. Circumstance is not a consideration, nor are individual families expected to “opt in”. This was the same for New Zealand schools in our parent’s generation.

Somehow along the way, we decided that bootstraps bootstraps something something, and schools did away with providing meals. But now, with John Empathy Key at the helm of our country, schools will “help kids” by providing breakfasts to “all schools who want it”. When we “unwrapped” this “present” we were expected to ooh and ahh at the generosity of making this available, not just to povo kids, but to everyone school who asks for it.

But here’s where the segregation kicks in. The thing is, while there are too many children who would otherwise get no breakfast (or lunch), there is also an untold number of families on or under the poverty line who just scrape by.

Parents who are able to give their children eat 3 meals a day – but at the expense of having absolutely nothing left over every week, defaulting on debt payments or having no way to deal with an emergency requiring funds because their weeks are so tight – will have to opt in to this “hand out” for “help”.

The food in schools program, like the variants that exist in some schools currently, will need numbers of students who want breakfast so they know how much to provide. And that’s because this isn’t social change, this is a special present from Mr John Key. As opposed to a basic minimum for all children in a country which is run by people who had full bellies from hot lunches at school in the 1950’s.

Some parents of kids who will finally be presented with the option of food at school will see this program as a blessing and have a little bit extra each week. But some will maintain they’re fine and they don’t want to use food that could be going to kids who need it more than theirs, despite their circumstance.

Some kids will eat free breakfasts with their friends and think nothing of it. Some schools will jump at the opportunity to provide food to their students. Some will create a community around it so it becomes a norm for kids and there’s no stigma in opting in. But some will assume, by virtue of decile or reputation, that free food would be surplus to their student’s needs.

The scholarship kids, the ones who nobody really knows what goes on at home with, the poor kids who got lucky with zoning or a wealthy grandparent will continue to have families who just scrape by. Families who, if given the opportunity, might sign up. Which would of course spell social suicide for their kids.

Let me tell you something about being part of a poor minority in a wealthy private or “well zoned” public school – if your classmates can’t tell your poor because of the weird shit you wear to school, they will tell when you’re asking for food in the mornings.

Until we see food in schools as a norm, as a basic provision which is inherent to good education and school community (which other, non-edible elements the Government is otherwise happy to take responsibility for), the Food in Schools program will further divide the rich and the poor. It will help some, but it will continue to be seen as a hand out. As an indicator of bad parenting, bad stock and bad seeds.

And anyone who thinks that some schools won’t want to run a mile from associating themselves with that sort of program, has never been to the sort of school I went to.Which I wouldn’t wish on them in a million years.

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