It was a heart-wrenching moment early childhood teacher Christine Richards will not easily forget – the day a four-year-old boy arrived crying because he was hungry and his mum had no food to give him.
"It was sad to see," she says. "He was totally beside himself so we gave him a big cuddle and set about getting something for him to eat."
Richards, who runs two early childhood centres in south Auckland, Mokopuna ki Roscommon and Mokopuna ki Clendon, says scenes like this are becoming so common the centres have been forced to pull money from other budgets to buy food to give to their hungry preschoolers.
"I've been here 10 years and the change has been huge. When I first came there was no need like this, everybody had food but now we are seeing more kids come to us hungry; it is so disheartening for them."
Her comments come as KidsCan, a charity helping to alleviate the effects of economic hardship on children, is calling for donations to help with a new national programme it has created. It supports children under five whose parents struggle to provide them with enough food and clothing.
The programme is running alongside the charity's long-established schools programme through which it provides food, raincoats, shoes, socks and basic health and hygiene items to 740 schools throughout the country.
KidsCan founder and CEO Julie Chapman says until now early childhood centres (ECEs) have been overlooked: "We've forgotten about our most vulnerable children; they don't suddenly find themselves in poverty when they turn five. A lack of investment in them means they're on the back foot before they even start school," she says.
Launched last October in 25 early childhood centres in Northland, Auckland and Hawkes Bay, it supports 950 children who are provided with fresh meals, rain coats, shoes and head lice treatment.
Meanwhile Richards, whose two centres are among more than 100 ECEs that have asked to join the KidsCan programme, says they buy or prepare their own food to feed hungry youngsters such as bread, jam, fruit and baking.
"It's what we do and we are happy to do it, but things are really bad out there and getting worse," she says. "We recently had another example when a three-year-old girl for four days in a row came with a lunchbox with no food in it. By the time we realised you can imagine the kid was starving.
"There are children living in overcrowded housing dealing with all the problems associated with poverty; there are parents working multiple jobs, teen parents, grandparents raising children and beneficiaries and when the food runs out they don't bring their kids in."
"If you've got a full puku (stomach) you're happy, if not you are grumpy and that's when trouble can happen."
Anna Scanlan, general manager at two Early Discoveries centres in Weymouth and Manurewa in south Auckland which are part of the KidsCan programme, says it's incredible to be able to give every child a nutritious meal – and as much as they want.
"People are always struggling in our area and through KidsCan those struggles are being addressed at an earlier age meaning parents don't have to worry so much about packed lunches or shoes for their children."
Well known child development expert Nathan Wallis says a hungry child is a child that can't learn. "Learning is an optional extra to the human brain – survival comes first. What KidsCan have been doing in schools is so, so important but this (the Early Childhood programme) is even more important because these are the formative years."
Chapman says KidsCan needs more support: "In the last five years we've doubled the number of schools we support, but we still have 38 schools and more than 100 early childhood centres waiting for help. We need the support of more caring Kiwis to reach these children, who urgently need our help."
So far this year KidsCan has served 424,546 hot meals in 491 schools, donated over 36,000 raincoats and 20,400 pairs of shoes, 36,800 bottles of head lice treatment and 36,000 lice combs. It has also given out 21,475 boxes of sanitary products.