Children's Commissioner fronts for Nats on food in schools: Corporate agenda rules

Food in schools – Russell Wills now Key’s puppet – targeting, corporatisation and the charity model rule

Children’s Commissioner Russell Wills  gave a grand demonstration on RNZ yesterday of how even a well meaning and highly respected professional can become a right wing Government’s puppet in the blink of an eye.

 Dr Wills began his five-year term as commissioner only two years ago, in July 2011.

I was full of hope about the appointment, even though Paula Bennett was the Minister involved.

Dr Wills was renowned as a paediatrician whose experience on the front line of child health lead him to take some courageous stands, including publicly supporting my member’s bill to amend s59 of the Crimes Act.

So it was with a sense of personal sadness that I heard the same Dr Wills on the radio this morning extolling what I consider a far-right approach to any attempt to introduce the beginnings of a universalised, state-funded food-in-schools programme.

Thanks to a lot of hard work on the part of many community groups, Mana members, and Hone himself, Hone Harawira’s member’s bill Education (Breakfast and Lunch Programmes in Schools) is now widely supported across the community and in Parliament, although Peter Dunne appears to remain steadfast in his determination to use his one vote to ensure its defeat.

With the bill likely to be up for its first reading in Parliament in early June, the Children’s Commissioner’s comments take on heightened significance.

In an article penned for the Dominion Post and in his RNZ interview, Dr Wills argues that:

  • The question of food-in-schools should not be politicised, and no legislation is needed.
  • Universal government funded meals in schools should be opposed, one of the reasons being that they ‘provide no role for parents, business or community organisations.’
  • State funded meals also, he says, offer poor food, allow the state to take over the role of parents in feeding their kids, encourage dependency, and cost money which could be better spent on other things.
  • Adequate programmes are already being provided in most decile 1 & 2 schools via a mix of philanthropic, business, NGO and parent support.
  • These programmes are excellent because they are a means to bring parents into the schools.
  • There is no stigma in decile 1 & 2 feeding programmes, but it is more likely to arise at decile 3 & 4 schools.

These arguments are a classic summary of the same corporatisation and privatisation agenda we see everywhere at the moment, with community groups and schools sucked into playing a brokerage role between private business and the state.

This agenda would have us believe it’s better for kids to rely on the good will of the local PakNSave for food, a PakNSave which is in all likelihood seeking to introduce youth rates and offer its workers a nil wage rise this year.

It assumes that most of us have bought into the idea that the charity model in which the deserving poor are targeted for assistance is better than universalised and non-discriminatory state support.

And Dr Wills takes no account of the fact that two of the main problems with any targeted programme are that many children miss out, and that many on the receiving end do feel stigmatised, whether that’s recognised by the food’s providers or not.

He also makes some horribly unresearched assumptions, such as that state-funded school meals in New Zealand would necessarily be of poor quality; that almost all decile 1 & 2 schools currently have adequate programmes, and that these have no stigma attached.

I hope the day comes when we will see a proper food-in-schools programme in Aotearoa.

It’s no big deal in other countries. We seem to be a true outlier on this one, determined to save money at the expense of our children, once again.

This whole performance is yet another revelation about National’s excellent ability to co-opt even some of our best and brightest to front their agenda. 

Dr Wills says it’s time for a ‘cup of tea’ on food in schools.

Well, I reckon it’s time for at least one healthy meal a day for all our children, in all our schools.

I’d love to see Labour, the Greens and Mana come out with a combined policy on that before the next election.