Free food in schools: Equality of opportunity?

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.


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  • Alternative: don’t do this, keep track of which kids don’t get fed, then move towards greater coercion in the welfare services provided to that family. It probably signals that all kinds of bad stuff are there going on.

    • I suspect the cost of doing this would be higher.

      I see school lunches as akin to just treating the school more like a boarding school. Kids can sit there and arbitrarily throw their food at each other in a supervised environment.

      • it’s a two way street. Improve eating habits for children at school and see that feedback into the home (Jamie Oliver can help out if need). Definite economies of scale in doing this on a school wide basis, alongside introducing school veggie gardens into all schools. I think the less we hear about “personal responsibility” on this issue, the better (Unless you have personal experience of grinding poverty and what it does to the psyche).

        • Society needs to ask how it sees children – do a society raise a child, or is it solely down to the family.

          It probably involves asking things that makes us uncomfortable, and accepting things about our own lives we don’t want to accept. But that’s part of the fun – which is why issues involving children are important and useful thought experiments.

          • It’s not a binary event. Clearly the responsibility for raising a child resides with the parents. However, we do not live in a vacuum (or theoretical economic model!) but within an interconnected system. For many reasons (primarily poverty, welfare dependency), child rearing, for many, is not a successful process. If a policy, such as the provision of food in schools, can be provided at scale, that can have up upward and downward influences i.e the children have better nutrition, which may flow on to better performance at school in both behaviour and learning (both interrelated) and this can flow back into the home through increased levels of awareness, possible interaction with the schools and so on. In other words, the children end up educating the parents. If this circular flow can work, then everyone’s a winner. Now, at the same time, we can look at policies for help new parents prepare for success. The pay off for society comes downstream. Policy doesn’t have to be one or the other but can be both/and.

            • Nothing is binary, but defining extremes helps us to understand influences – there is no point talking about interrelationships when we don’t understand the primatives of what is going on. The entire “vacuum” concept is a vacuous point, often used to try and ignore logical arguments that people don’t want to listen to – so I’d avoid using it.

              Say we assumed that the “responsibilty” for a childs welfare is solely due to parents, and that society has no responsibility. In that case, if the benefits of scale etc were sufficient, parents would work together to provide said provision of food – the fact they don’t implies that either this is inefficient on that level, that the transaction costs of parents working together are high, or that there is a free rider problem.

              In this context, “free food in school” is likely to be a fairly poor policy (unless we can frame it as a co-ordination problem, I like that explanation).

              The externalities you are willing to discuss are returns on investment for the child, you need to support why we view such things as socially desirable in order to justify government intervention. If we think that, in many situations, the benefit to the child is underplayed in the family setting we can justify it.

              I’m not disagreeing with anything your saying, but we need to look at it consistently, and with the question of “what society values” – we can’t justify an intervention without trying to work out what assumptions we are truly making. An assumption that “a society/community bears some responsibility for the raising of a child” is likely to be an important part of this – and we have to ask whether that is the way NZer’s feel. I do – which is why I said I agree with it, but I am not all NZer’s, only one.

      • I didn’t expect my proposal to be cheaper. I did expect it might give better results per dollar invested.

        • Potentially – I guess I’m just not a fan of coercion through the benefit system, as I view the payment as akin to a minimum social income. Maybe that’s just my ideological blind spot

          • I would agree with you entirely, except for the dynamics. What is the elasticity of childbearing in the worst quality families with respect to payment for having kids?

            • Indeed. However, if we are feeding the kids at school then when we work out the “income basket” required for a family for an appropriate minimum income this must be taken into account – given that is already an income transfer, the required other income transfer will be smaller right.

              • Oh, if you set the whole thing up so total benefit payments are constant, then I strongly support it: it’s mandating a transfer within benefit to the benefit of the kids at the expense of the parents. I didn’t think that’s quite what Labour was proposing though.

                • They likely have an implicit assumption that transfers to poor families are too low relative to the socially determined minimum income – that or they’re just saying things that they think will win them votes.

            • “elasticity of childbearing”. is there any data on this?

    • I think I agree with Matt: our children are too important to be left to the whims of parents 😉

      • I was waiting for that 😉

        I’m saying there is a continuum – we don’t ask all parents to home school their children, maybe there is an argument for outsourcing lunches as well 😛

  • JC

    I suggest that for every child who will really benefit from the program there will be one or two more who will become fatter from it, ie, its 300 extra calories on top of their already adequate intake of home breakfast, prepared lunch, fries etc bought with pocket money walking to or from school etc.

    Second, if the school provides the meals a la the approved food pyramid it will load them up on sugars and starches.. diabetes country.

    Third, mission creep and equality for all. What starts in the lower deciles will end up a full fledged programme for most or all deciles and most kids with fully professional food premises, sterile, “approved” chiefs and cooks and a billion dollar budget.

    Last, its a nice to have but uncontrollable venture that makes families that much more dependent on Govt. Such a venture should come from the volunteer effects of the school and community.


    • All good points, but I think all things that can be relatively easily solved where important.

      The cost creep is the main concern to me, but in of itself that doesn’t imply that the programme shouldn’t take place.

      We force a kid to stay at school for a whole day, we force them to do exercise and learn certain things, why not make sure they’re feed at the same time? The huge disparity in the lunches kids have avaliable is a pure endowment effect – and it has a major consequence on their ability to learn, and their physical growth. As a result, I can see scope for it here – at least as an open suggestion for something schools can use part of their budget on.

  • Tpdbd

    True social equalitymeans that no matter what society members have or who they are, they are treated equally and have equal opportunities.