One in five New Zealand children were living in poverty in 2011, says the Ministry of Social Development. Other organisations put the figure at one in four, or 270,000 kids.
The Ministry of Health reports that over 20 percent of households with school-age children do not have enough food.
Over 1.8 million food items were distributed in schools last year by KidsCan – just one of a growing number of charities now feeding hungry kids.
In 2011, KidsCan also launched New Zealand’s first ever aid programme for children living in this country.
In January 2013 the Variety children’s charity became the second aid programme, with a new scheme allowing donors to sponsor a local child for $35 a month.
The facts are stark. The plight of children in Aotearoa today is an indictment of capitalism. The time for government action to “Feed the Kids” is now.
MANA Party leader Hone Harawira has a private member’s bill before parliament to deliver just that.
His Education (Breakfast and Lunch Programmes in Schools) Amendment Bill (or “Feed the Kids Bill”, for short) would ensure government-funded meals are available to every child in decile 1 and 2 schools.
The first parliamentary vote on the Bill is expected soon.
The Bill is being supported by a wide range of groups, from education and health sector unions, to child welfare advocates, Christian social service agencies and the government’s own Children’s Commissioner.
With backing from the Labour Party, the Greens, the Maori Party, NZ First and independent MP Brendan Horan, it is currently just one vote short of the numbers needed for it to pass its first reading in parliament.
A public symposium is being held in Tokoroa on April 13 to generate further support.
Yet MANA’s Feed the Kids Bill also has its critics. Right-wing opponents of the Bill say it’s the job of the parents, not the government, to make sure kids are fed. They say that if the state provides food it lets bad parents off the hook when they spend their money on “booze and smokes” instead.
Some of the harshest critics have been Maori.
Yet in the pre-European Māori world, looking after children wasn’t just the job of the parents. Men and women described each other’s children as “ā mātou tamariki” (the children of us many), as distinct from “ā māua tamariki” (the children of us two).
This shared parenting was based on shared resources. Extended family groups often had their own plot in communal gardens and their own places to fish and hunt. They also laid claim to particular trees.
The idea that the mother and father alone are to blame when children go hungry only came to Aotearoa with the introduction of capitalism.
In a repeat of the “enclosures of the commons” which had dispossessed European peasants, colonisation turned shared Māori land, natural resources and taonga into private property. Ownership was quickly transferred to the Crown, wealthy colonists and corporations.
Responsibility for raising children was transferred in turn to the biological parents, especially the mother, so the rest of the community could be put to work for the Pākehā capitalists.
Today, many of those who blame the parents feel genuine concern for the kids. They may also appear to reflect “common sense” about the way the world works. But ultimately they are echoing the mouthpieces of capitalism.
Prime minister John Key, for instance, responded to a Salvation Army report which showed record demand for food parcels in 2011 by blaming individuals: “Anyone on a benefit actually has a lifestyle choice. If one budgets properly, one can pay one’s bills… Now some make poor choices and they don’t have money left.”
However, the National government is also aware of substantial public support for state-funded meals for all kids in low decile schools.
So late last year they advanced their own counter-proposal. They announced a small increase in funding for businesses to deliver a little more, to a select few, through charities.
“The government has given money to KidsCan to fund more schools, and the government has worked with other commercial entities like Fonterra to run programmes in schools”, John Key said.
Fonterra attracted a lot of publicity for its milk in schools programme, trialled in Northland in 2011 and then rolled out across the country.
But Fonterra CEO Theo Spierings had spelled out the cold, capitalist logic behind the idea. It wasn’t about caring for kids at all:
“I don’t believe in charity”, said Spierings. “This is a business decision – it is really something like advertising and promotion…
New Zealand is the largest exporter of dairy products in the world, but at home, we’re not drinking as much milk as we used to…
Long term we want to have these kids on milk and not on carbonated drinks when they are 20 years old. And when they earn a salary, they go to the supermarket and buy our milk”.
The effect of leaving child welfare to the whims of “business decisions” was felt by the Red Cross in 2011, when Countdown supermarkets withdrew their sponsorship and crippled that organisation’s school breakfast programme.
Fonterra is not alone in its ruthless approach to “advertising and promotion” to children. Sanitarium uses its sponsorship of the KickStart Breakfast programme to teach kids “breakfast patterns that can be replicated in the home” by buying their products.
They also use children to subtly reinforce the message that their “bad parents” are to blame. They tell kids to “appreciate how good they feel and pass this message on hopefully improving their families’ overall health”.
And by refusing to provide breakfasts and lunches on a universal basis to all, the charities favoured by the National government brand the needy kids at school with the stigma of poverty from a young age.
The efforts of all the charities combined, meanwhile, represent a drop in the ocean compared with the level of need. Around 150 schools, and thousands of children, are stuck on the waiting list for help from KidsCan. Many more schools don’t bother applying.
The greatest outrage, however, is that charities are aligning themselves politically with the National government.
KidsCan proclaims a “vision of a New Zealand where less fortunate children have an equal opportunity to make a positive contribution to society”. Yet KidsCan CEO Julie Chapman is publicly campaigning to discredit the idea of government-funded school meals available to all.
“As the Prime Minister said, not all children in low decile schools need a food programme”, she declared. “KidsCan supports the model of business, community and the government working together… as the most effective and financially prudent approach.”
The problem of New Zealand’s hungry children is not down to “bad parents”. As Donna Wynd of the Child Poverty Action Group puts it, “If a few children go hungry in the morning then that suggests a problem within individual families. If hundreds of children go hungry morning after morning then the problem is structural.”
Part of the structural underpinning of hunger is our low wage economy. For it’s not just the children of beneficiaries who are effected. Food banks and budgeting agencies report that the greatest increase in people seeking assistance is coming from working families.
So part of the solution requires stronger unions and more militant bargaining, to raise wages across the board. But there is also the need to struggle for a collective approach which supports parents, children, and those disabled by capitalism.
The clearest commentary on MANA’s Feed the Kids Bill has come from the organisation Auckland Action Against Poverty.
“As the Bill recommends, the provision of this food shouldn’t be left to charity but should be taxpayer funded”, says AAAP spokesperson Sarah Thompson. “This will ensure greater access country-wide and decrease the dependance on the whims and follies of individual charities and businesses…
Every time another charity picks up a ‘feed the kids’ or ‘provide them with shoes’ or other such programme, commendable though it may be from an individual point of view, it is another nail in the coffin of the welfare state…
In addition, in the larger scheme of things, there is an urgent need for decent job creation, a living wage and higher benefit payment rates.”
MANA is pursuing struggles like these in parliament, as well.
The main job now is to get the Feed the Kids Bill passed. But there are also questions for MANA leaders.
Their feedthekids.org.nz website says, “The Bill recognises the importance of charities, businesses, and school volunteers currently involved in food in schools programmes”.
But it’s become clear that these charities and businesses are not wholeheartedly committed to child welfare. As the history of Aotearoa suggests, a society which truly shares the care of children must also share ownership and control of land and resources, taking them back from businesses like Fonterra.