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Behind the scenes with New Zealand's school lunch programme

Duggie Melsom has taught nutrition and food safety to budding chefs for more than 30 years at Wintec, and this year some of her newest students are sharpening their knives to a different beat. They’ll take their learning back to the school kitchens of the Waikato and Coromandel to ensure their students get a healthy, nutritious lunch.

She says schools and kura can opt to outsource the delivery of lunches to an approved external supplier or create menus and make their own lunches at the school. To do this, they need trained staff who are paid above the minimum wage for their work.

“For many of our smaller communities, delivery from the school is the only option,” says Melsom. “They are too remote to have a caterer on their doorstep. Students are coming to us through these schools, and they are all ages and ethnicities. Even principals attend to see what they can do. They are real people who all see this as a great opportunity for their learners. Their facilities vary a lot, many are inexperienced and there are a lot of challenges for them.”

Melsom is delivering a comprehensive two-day training programme developed by Eastern Institute of Technology (EIT) in collaboration with district health boards, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry for Primary Industries, to train people from the community to prepare and deliver lunches.

Sushi is just one of the options schools can create for their students and the course includes a lesson. To help out, Wintec chef tutor, Carl Houben created a video demonstrating how to make a simple California sushi roll  to help out the Wintec course attendees as an ongoing reference. 

Wintec Hospitality Team Manager Sarah Turpitt says, “the energy between Duggie and these students is immense”.

“They have just two days. These lunch programmes have got to follow a food control plan to comply with legislation, be healthy and be safe. We want to help them succeed and when they leave this programme, we are looking forward to visiting them, to support them on their journey.”

St Mary’s Catholic School in Ōtorohanga is blessed with a “perfect kitchen” in the school hall and they will launch their school lunch programme Term 2, (early May) this year. Being prepared is important to Principal, Deidre Gray-Edwards who attended the training course at Wintec herself along with a parent and grandparent from the school.

“Sharing food brings us together as a community,” says Gray-Edwards who adds that as well as the daily lunches, they are planning “a sit-down whānau lunch” once a week with their 32 students who range from five to 13 years old.

“The ability to grow and nurture a community through our kids is amazing and eating together is part of that. I feel really blessed we have been given this opportunity to provide lunches. It’s going to take the pressure off households and provide some healthy choices to our kids. It also gives us the opportunity to encourage them to try something new.”

Melsom says the creative response from schools on the delivery of the Ka Ora, Ka Ako lunch programme is interesting and varies from school to school depending on where they are situated, the cultural makeup of their community and what resources they make use of.

“One of the ladies was offered a horse to cut up for the students, of course she said 'no'. We talked about the challenges of using local kai moana and wild pork - there is a lot of learning to be done around food safety and we are working through that.”

“The schools are learning to design their own menus,” says Melsom. “One of our students put together a really good, healthy menu and she willingly shared it with the class.”

“We talk about nutrition, allergens, vegetarianism, diversity and fat as the menus must be low fat, and then there’s food costing. They have a budget of just $5 per student and they need to feed anywhere from 7 to 300 students.”

Turpitt says Kawhia School stunned her with their idea to utilise produce from their school gardens, so their students take part in growing the food that will end up on their lunch plates.

While another school, recognising that so many of their students are arriving at school hungry, plan to use their budget to give students brunch at 10.30am.

Ka Ora, Ka Ako started in 2019 as a two-year initiative to explore the provision of free and healthy lunches to Year 1-8 students in schools with high levels of socio-economic disadvantage in three regions – Bay of Plenty/Waiariki, Hawke’s Bay/Tairāwhiti and Otago/Southland. It was expanded across New Zealand in response to Covid-19 and aims to reach around over 214,000 students in 964 schools and kura by the end of 2021, including secondary students. Ka Ora, Ka Ako is targeted at the 25 percent of schools and kura where students face the greatest barriers to education, achievement, and wellbeing.

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