Free and healthy school lunches

The free and healthy school lunches programme aims to reduce food insecurity by providing access to a nutritious lunch in school every day. By July 2020, over 600,000 lunches have been served in 60 schools to around 13,000 students.

Four students sitting and eating lunch

Flaxmere Primary School students enjoy their lunch.

Regular nutritious food is vital for children’s physical, mental and educational development. It affects their ability to focus, concentrate and learn.

Around one in five children in New Zealand live in households that struggle to put enough good-quality food on the table. In communities facing greater socio-economic barriers, 40 percent of parents run out of food sometimes or often.

The school lunches programme aims to reduce food insecurity by providing access to a nutritious lunch every day. Research indicates that reducing food insecurity for children and young people:

  • improves wellbeing
  • supports child development and learning
  • improves learners’ levels of concentration, behaviour and school achievement
  • reduces financial hardship amongst families and whānau
  • addresses barriers to children’s participation in education and promotes attendance at school
  • boosts learners’ overall health.

The programme upholds, honours and gives practical effect to Te Tiriti | The Treaty, respecting the position of Māori as tangata whenua, in order to support equity and remove barriers to access, for all tamariki to thrive and flourish in Aotearoa New Zealand.

About the programme

In 2019, the Government introduced a two-year initiative to explore delivering a free and healthy daily school lunch to Year 1 to 8 (primary and intermediate aged) students in schools with high levels of disadvantage.

Around 10,000 learners in 42 schools across Bay of Plenty/Waiariki and Hawke’s Bay/Tairāwhiti have been getting a free school lunch since the programme began in Term 1 2020. Over 3,000 students in 18 schools and kura across Otago and Southland joined the programme in Terms 2 and 3.

Another 151 schools in Bay of Plenty/Waiariki and Hawke’s Bay/Tairāwhiti will begin delivering lunches in Term 4 2020.

Providng a lunch to all students in participating schools will make sure that every student who needs a free lunch can access one, and will minimise any stigma that sometimes comes with receiving free meals. Targeting programmes on the basis of need also requires a process to confirm eligibility. This can add to cost and complexity and discourage eligible families from taking part, meaning some children needing lunch miss out.

Schools can decide whether to deliver lunches themselves, or outsource to an external supplier. Schools and communities are best placed to understand what their children need.

We are running an open tender process for schools and kura to select external suppliers. Schools and kura will be able to choose from a panel of suppliers via the Government Electronic Tender Service (GETS)(external link) platform that have met minimum standards of food hygiene, waste management and food preparation. This will simplify the procurement process for schools.

There are a range of supplier models depending on what works best for each school, e.g. a single supplier, a mix of suppliers, one or more suppliers could be contracted on behalf of a group of schools and kura.

The Ministry is supporting schools with contractual documentation and providing guidance and advice to schools if required.

Expanding the programme in response to COVID-19

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the programme is being expanded to reach around 200,000 students by the end of 2021. It includes extending the programme to secondary schools.

This initiative will help cushion the blow of COVID-19 impacts on students living in already socio-economically disadvantaged households which may now be experiencing heightened financial stress, job and income losses at home which can interfere with learning and wellbeing.

Expanding the school lunch programme is also expected to support job creation and economic recovery from the pandemic. Based on information from the programme, it is estimated that around 2,000 jobs in local communities will be created from the expansion.

This first roll-out of the Budget 2020 expansion will see up to 100 additional schools and kura in Bay of Plenty/Waiariki and Hawke’s Bay/Tairāwhiti joining the programme in Term 4. The programme is already underway across these regions, so we are taking advantage of established processes to be able to quickly include additional schools and kura.

We are in the process of identifying the schools across the rest of the country and expect that they will start implementing the lunch programme from Term 1 2021. By Term 3 2021, the expansion of the programme will mean that around 200,000 Year 1-13 students will receive a lunch.

Budget 2020 announcement(external link)

Participants in the programme

The programme is targeted at schools and kura where students are facing the 25% highest level of disadvantage and socio-economic barriers.

A range of factors that could affect access to education, wellbeing and achievement are taken into account when selecting schools and kura to take part. This includes community characteristics and variables prevalent in children’s lives such as family circumstances, income and number of school changes. Ministry staff working directly with the schools and kura also provide qualitative insights based on their understanding of the needs and character of the school.

In addition, schools and kura are invited based on geographic clustering to ensure that those in close proximity are all part of the programme. This is to reduce the likelihood of students moving between schools to access lunches.

Selected schools are taking part in a comprehensive evaluation of the lunches programme. To ensure the evaluation is representative, a mix of schools and kura in urban, rural and isolated locations, with different roll sizes and with a variety of relationships to existing food programmes have been invited to participate. This means we can learn as much as possible about providing lunches in different school types, locations and facilities. Hawke’s Bay/Tairāwhiti, Bay of Plenty/Waiariki and Otago/Southland were chosen as they provide a range of settings, locations, and a mix of North Island and South Island. Focusing on three regions means we can better support participating schools and reduce overhead and evaluation costs, whilst learning more about what’s involved in providing lunches.

For schools invited as part of the expanded programme, information about the impact of COVID-19 on communities will be considered.

Nutrition and safety

It is important that lunches are healthy and nutritious. We have worked closely with the Ministry of Health to establish guidelines and with schools, communities, and nutrition and health experts to implement the programme.

There is no set lunch menu for the programme. Schools and suppliers decide what works best for them. What is in lunches will depend on a number of factors such as the chosen supplier, available catering facilities, the number of students, and a school’s distance from the chosen supplier.

Lunches must be healthy and nutritious, based on the Ministry of Health’s nutrition guidelines(external link)

This includes offering foods from the four main food groups - vegetables and fruit, breads and cereals, milk and milk products, and lean meat, chicken, seafood, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds. A typical weekly menu includes a variety of lunches such as wraps, vegetable sticks, dips, salads, soups, and hot lunches. Menus may also change from term to term to reflect available fresh produce and the season, and any feedback from schools and students.

Staff preparing food must comply with Food Act 2014 and be aware of allergies and allergens. We have worked with the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) to provide a food safety plan to assist schools providing their own lunches. MPI has also provided schools with guidance and support. Contracts with external suppliers will include requirements to meet nutritional guidelines and health and safety standards.

Schools are also encouraged to move towards a zero waste policy, reduce food wastage, and minimise the use of plastic single-use items.


Lunches are provided at a maximum ‘per child, per day’ cost of $5 for students in Years 1-8, and $7 for students in Years 9+ to reflect the larger portion size required for older students. This excludes GST. Information from existing commercial and charitable lunch programmes in New Zealand schools and kura, and overseas examples of school food programmes indicate this is a reasonable cost for a nutritious lunch. The exact figure set aside per child per day will depend on the how each school decides to deliver school lunches. Funds for each term will be adjusted to take account of changes to school rolls and actual spend.


We are working with selected schools and suppliers to explore different ways of delivering nutritious lunches, and adapt and refine as we go.

Evaluation of the programme began in Term 1 2020. There are two phases of evaluation: evaluating implementation and testing the best way to deliver lunches, and gathering evidence of the impact for learners and their achievement and engagement at school.

Evaluation will include gathering feedback from schools and suppliers, including asking:

  • if nutritious food is available every day of sufficient quality, quantity and variety, and is appealing to learners
  • if different implementation models provide better value for money for our schools
  • if local capacity can sustain delivery of the pilot programme
  • if the Ministry of Education can expand the pilot and scale up the model.

We will also talk to learners about the food they eat, how full they feel, and how it makes them feel about coming to school.

Child Youth and Wellbeing Strategy

The programme is part of the Government’s new Child Youth and Wellbeing Strategy. Children and Young People have what they need is one of the key outcomes. Providing food to children at school is one way government can directly address poverty and food insecurity, and positively impact children’s wellbeing.

New Zealand Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy(external link)

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