Free school lunches

The programme that provides free lunches to students in school is under review and may be cut.

The free school lunches programme, called Ka Ora, Ka Ako in Māori, was introduced by the previous government in 2019. At first it was only for some primary and intermediate schools, but in February 2020 it was expanded to some secondary schools. The aim is to give lunches to children from families who may not be able to afford them, so that the children can learn well. Schools which are in lower socio-economic areas can apply to join the programme. There are now 1,023 schools participating, with 229,811 students. The meals must be nutritious – for example, there can be nothing deep-fried or fatty, and no juice or chocolate.

When they were in opposition, the National Party said they supported the programme but wanted to make it more efficient and effective. The ACT Party opposed the scheme, saying it was a waste of money, and promised to abolish it. Now that both these parties are in government, they are going to conduct a review.

One change that has been suggested is that free lunches could be provided only to those children who need them, instead of the whole school. This could save money and avoid food waste. However, a Ministry of Education survey showed that 61% of leftover lunches were taken home by students and 21% were given to the community, such as foodbanks and charities. One advantage of giving free lunches to all students is that there is no stigma, or shame, in having one, and it is simple to administer.

David Seymour, leader of the ACT Party, claims that there is no evidence that the programme works: for example, that it does not lead to increased attendance or better academic achievement. Reports in 2020, 2022 and 2023 found that children receiving free lunches were happier and healthier but did not find benefits in attendance and achievement. However, other studies have found that student behaviour and learning improved, and many school principals and teachers have stated that they want the programme to continue. Last week, twelve school and teacher organisations signed a letter asking the Prime Minister to retain funding for the scheme.  It is likely that we will find out what will happen to the free lunches programme when the government releases the budget on 30 May.


socio-economic – a combination of social and economic factors

nutritious – food that is nutritious is very good for you, as it has natural substances that help your body stay healthy or grow

abolish – to officially end something

wastage – when something is not used, especially in a way that’s bad  

stigma – negative feelings that people have about a situation someone is in

retain – to keep