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The purpose of these guidelines

These guidelines are for schools that want to have a successful food programme – whether they are just thinking about where to start, or wanting to improve an existing one.

The guidelines aim to ensure any programme achieves the maximum possible health and educational benefits for all children. They share information and advice on key aspects of food programmes, and provide schools with the opportunity to learn from the experiences of others. 

Food programmes are for all schools regardless of decile. While a fundamental priority is to ensure that no child goes hungry at school, a school food programme can equally be used to promote good nutrition in a tangible way for students. It benefits the wider school community by building and strengthening relationships between students, parents and whānau, volunteers, and the organisations that support the school.

A food programme can be more than just filling tummies – it can lay the foundations for a lifelong knowledge of, and respect for, nutritious food and healthy lifestyles. If students can learn how to make healthy food choices, and even how to grow their own vegetables, they will be equipped with an important life skill and encouraged to be self-reliant. Ensuring children are fed and ready to learn is one of the key ways of realising our investment in education and creating a healthier society.

Benefits of School Food Programmes

Teachers know that hungry children will struggle to learn. They may also be disruptive in the classroom making learning more difficult for their peers. Poor nutrition, including skipping meals, has negative effects on cognition, behaviour and overall health in children. It means children don’t do as well as they can at school and have more time off sick. It puts undue pressure on families and schools.

Not eating breakfast or lunch can be related to poverty, but children and young people from all backgrounds sometimes forget their lunch, sleep in, make ill-informed food choices, or prioritise socialising before eating. A well-designed food programme can be used address all these issues, and can play an active role in enabling children to reach their full educational potential by:

  • being healthier, more focused, and better able to learn
  • growing partnerships with children, young people, parents, whānau, and the community
  • making learning about nutrition more relevant and real.

There is a risk that if school food programmes are not set up effectively or sustainably they may stigmatise students or create a level of dependence. These guidelines show how other schools have designed and delivered their programmes to overcome these problems.

A whole of school approach

These guidelines cover a range of options for schools who want to address food related issues – from a simple change in nutritional policy to more substantial food programmes. If you are implementing a programme with the intention of feeding children, best practice shows it is more likely to be successful if it is operated as part of a whole-school approach rather than being seen as an "add-on".

Integrating a food programme into the wider life and culture of your school can bring about many benefits. It becomes more than a one-way transaction of feeding children – it provides them with knowledge of healthy food and important life skills through practical learning and engagement, and fosters a stronger sense of school community. It also normalises the concept of having a food programme in a school, and therefore reduces the stigma that children can encounter for receiving a free breakfast or lunch. As part of a whole-school approach, a food programme will:

  • meet the needs of the children and the community
  • be integrated into the school curriculum
  • value student wellbeing and their aspirations
  • align with the school’s strategic direction
  • be consistent with legal and ethical obligations under the Education Act
  • be clearly identified within the framework of your school’s overall priorities for student safety, wellbeing and education
  • be explained to other stakeholders (e.g. new parents, ERO, auditors) in terms of your school’s commitment to improving student outcomes
  • be sustainable (for example, when key individuals leave the school or are assigned to other work)

The importance of leadership

Strong leadership underpins all of the guidelines. It is critical to the success of any school food programme, and goes across all aspects of planning, implementation and management.

Leaders "walking the talk" will model good practice for the whole school community, and embed a culture that celebrates nutritional food and healthy living.

Self-review may highlight entrenched habits in your school that could act as a barrier to a programme being a success (such as inconsistent messages around healthy eating, or students making poor food and drink choices). If so, it may be necessary to initiate an internal culture change. This will be up to the leadership of the school to take the lead.


See the exemplar in appendix 1 for how the Principal at Yendarra School used her leadership position to transform the school culture.

The guideline principles

The following principles were developed by the Working Group to encompass the elements of best-practice, and should be at the heart of all school food programmes. School leaders can play an integral role by promoting these principles in the design and delivery of a food programme:

1) Child-centred – all decisions are made in the best interest of the children and young people and their needs are prioritised over other interests, such as business.

2 ) Inclusive – programmes should be accessible to those who need them. Include children, young people, families, whānau, and the community, and ensure that a culture of collaboration exists in the design and delivery of the programme. It is important that programmes do not create stigma or dependence.

3) Nutritionally sound – programmes should provide and promote food of good nutritional quality. An essential part of the programme should be to equip students with an understanding of how to maintain their own and collective wellbeing through good nutrition.

4) Take a whole-school approach – programmes that are primarily targeted to feed children should be integrated into the wider life of the school, working seamlessly alongside a school’s charter and policies, planning and reporting processes, and curriculum. Celebrate food and make it an integral part of school life.

5) Sustainable and evidence-based– programmes should be based on an understanding of the needs of the children and the school, and its ability to deliver on the goals of the programme. They should be subject to review and reflective practice.