Hungry children won't show up for new school year, principal says

Sunday, January 27, 2019

When the bell sounds for the start of the school year at south Auckland's Anchorage Park School some of the chairs are likely to be empty, principal Belinda Johnston says.

It's not that the decile three Pakuranga primary is struggling to fill its roll, rather that many parents will feel self-conscious about sending their kids to school hungry.

The school has taken a novel approach to the hunger pains; slipping sandwiches and fruit surreptitiously into the schoolbags of students who aren't able to bring their own. 

"Parents get embarrassed, about the older children in particular. Often the issues are uniforms and food," said Johnston.

"They (parents) don't want to send their children to school knowing they don't have any food, as everybody will know." 

The 2018 Child Poverty Monitor survey which found more than 160,000 children – or one in five of them – live in households without access to enough food.

In Johnston's experience as a teacher, she's seen firsthand the effects of hunger in schools, and says the one-in five statistic is accurate.

The Christmas period can compound the precarious financial state some of her students live in, placing further strain on families and relationships.

"Often the children are too shy to tell us when they come to school, so teachers need to be on their toes and looking for signs of behavioural issues, so a lack of food is one of the first things we notice."

Instead of offering lunches on a plate, teachers will slip lunch boxes into children's bags so that none of their friends notice, Johnston said.

The school also sends food home with certain children in the evenings and on weekends, and help with uniforms and stationery costs.

Johnston said KidsCan had made a huge difference in her school since they became involved.

During 2018, KidsCan gave out 5.27 million items of food and clothed 47,350 children in warm jackets across New Zealand.

In the past five years, the number of schools the charity supported have almost doubled, from 388 to 742.

KidsCan's CEO, Julie Chapman, said this time of year is overwhelming for families on the breadline.

"Every day they survive on very little. So there's no money for new stationery, or school bags, or expensive uniforms – many don't even know how they'll afford to put food in their child's lunch box.

"We know when parents feel ashamed that they can't make ends meet, some don't send their children to school. Those that do go start on the back foot because they don't have the right clothes, and they're hungry," Chapman said.

She said more children need their help because when kids are fed and warm, they're ready to learn.

"When you level the playing field, it gives them the chance to succeed like any other child. Our aim is to keep kids in school, so they get great jobs which lift them out of poverty."