Free food in schools: Equality of opportunity?

By Matt Nolan 10/09/2012 5

Recently the Labour party has suggested we have free food in low decile New Zealand schools.  At the same time, Kiwiblog suggested that this was nonsensical.

So how do we should we view this policy?

Generally, having the government buy something and give then give it out is relatively inefficient – we get no clear signal of the “value” associated with it, and the lack of clear discipline often leads to the government over spending on the service.

However, we could provide this same argument for the provision on “education”, or the provision of healthcare, or the provision of roads.  In each case, we are willing to move away from strict market provision for a reason.

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.

Now we may feel that it is due to families having insufficient income, and we may say that instead of free lunches a more appropriate solution would be to increase benefits and transfer payments.  But is this the whole explanation?  Potentially the real limiting factor is time, parents do not have the time, or information, to provide their kids with lunches in this case.  If this was the case, then ensuring that the school provides lunch would save these parents the time, ensure that food is provided, and would benefit from “scale” in the provision of lunches.

To be honest, as an individual I have always thought the provision of lunch at school makes sense from an equality of opportunity standpoint – you ship kids off to an institution for most of the day, we may as well make sure that the institution provides the services required.

Personal responsibility is a very important thing, but when it comes to children and education there is only so far such an attitude can take us.  I agree with this Labour party policy for the most part, although I wouldn’t just have it in low decile schools – I would probably make it an option for all schools to spend part of their budget on.


5 Responses to “Free food in schools: Equality of opportunity?”

  • “Potentially the real limiting factor is time, parents do not have the time, or information, to provide their kids with lunches in this case. ”

    If true, then isn’t this an indictment, in part, on the education system & govt policies of the past couple of decades? 20 yrs ago immediately post the fall of communism I worked with a charity in Poland that helped supply breakfasts in school. It saddens me to think NZ with all its advantages is now in the same place.

  • One of its flaws is surely that ‘high-decile’ schools can still have ‘low-decile’ kids attending – potentially without having breakfast/lunch (by Labour’s logic).

    It’s a difficult one, though: if parents are unwilling or unable to provide their children with suitable food, then do the children then fall through the cracks? If schools can identify those kids, should they have to provide for them from the (very very tight) school budget, or should they get official support? Should school meals be provided by charities (& what do you do when the charities stop doing it, as has happened with at least one program in the past few years)? I don’t know …

  • Bill posted a good blog which is related to this back in February:

    Here’s a policy specifically targetted at children, but what does it say about the Labour Party’s world view about them? One of Bill’s points is around the consumption vs investment nature of procreation.

    Do parents of “low decile” school attendee need Govt assistant to suppliment ‘under-investment’ they continually made in their children’s nutritional intake? If so, what parental income-related distinction does that imply in either the consumption or investment value of income-poor children?

    A rights-based argument around equality of opportunity is a funny distorted lense for viewing prejudice within the world.

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