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Guideline 3: A positive food programme that does not stigmatise

If your food programme is purpose-built to address a food need, rather than a health policy focus, then children and families need to feel comfortable about taking part. The stigma from being singled out as "poor" or "needy" can prevent children from participating, forcing them to ask their peers for food, another source of stigma, or go without food completely. 

Taking a whole of school approach by making your programme an integral part of your school and not just an "add on" for "needy" students is the most effective way to avoid this problem.

It is also important to make sure your school food programme does not create dependence. This is why it is vital for the wider school community to be involved in the delivery of the programme, not just a "top down" transaction from the school. Learning skills such as growing vegetables, and how to make healthy food choices independently, will enable children to become more self-reliant in later life.


Eliminating stigma associated with participating is vital for any food programme to be successful.

Key ways to reduce stigmatisation

There are several practical ways to ensure your food programme promotes constructive values such as community spirit, sharing, and caring for others.

Involve your students in the design and delivery of the programme

Make sure your students participate actively in the development and delivery of your programme. It is the children themselves who will decide if they are going to participate – so take their views seriously. Your programme will be more successful if students feel they have a stake in it, so ask what sort of activities or responsibilities they want.

School food programmes can provide a great opportunity to develop leadership skills for students – this includes designing menus, preparing and serving food, packing up, or being a student representative who reports to the board of trustees.

Be inclusive and child-centred

Avoid targeting your programme only to certain children you see as being "in need", as different students may need it on different days for all sorts of reasons. Make sure that the programme is available to any student who may need it, whether or not they are regular attendees. Ensure that the best interests of your students are prioritised ahead of other interests.

Be sensitive to students’ individual needs and beliefs, such as food allergies or eating only vegetarian, kosher or halal foods. Take into account the various cultural practices in your school that may be linked to food – for example that some students bless food before eating.

Link your programme with the wider community

Make sure your food programme reinforces and reflects the school’s other activities and priorities. Use it to build a partnership with your local community, as well as parents and whānau of current students. When the whole community helps organise and run your food programme it becomes a focus of community pride and helps avoid a divisive “us and them” mentality. 

Engage the school community in school-based events that relate to your programme, such as cooking classes, community gardens, and food fairs. You can also incorporate cultural food tasting evenings hosted by the students, or a focus on the cuisine from a different part of the world for a day or week in the school food programme. Teachers and students could give a presentation on where the food comes from, including how it is prepared and why, and the customs that surround the food.

Case study

See the Rhode Street School food programme exemplar in Appendix 1 for how the school has linked their programme to the wider school community.


School leadership plays a vital role in creating a positive culture for your food programme. Frame your messages in a positive way that reflects a strengths-based approach. You may find it useful for those involved to develop a consistent vocabulary and set of key messages. 

Teachers are generally very aware of the need to show tact when a child is hungry and to communicate with them in an open and non-judgmental way. Make sure that others (for example, relief teachers, parents, business partners) also have a strengths-based vocabulary to talk about the programme. Make sure all your students know what they should do if they are hungry and unable to participate fully in learning. 

Strengthening student voice

School leadership is not just about the principal and teachers; it is also about creating leadership opportunities. Build depth and understanding of your programme by ensuring students have a voice in planning and implementation. They need to be encouraged to feel confident that their thinking will be heard and reflected in the planning of the programme. There are great opportunities for students to develop leadership skills – from envisaging what the programme will look like to writing job descriptions for breakfast servers and milk monitors.