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. Up to 21,000 students in around 120 schools will eventually benefit from this pilot by the beginning of 2021. A decision will be made after this about whether to continue or extend the programme.

Four students sitting and eating lunch

Flaxmere Primary School students enjoy their lunch.

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.

About the programme

We will be providing a nutritious lunch to every student in participating schools until the end of 2021.

This is a two-year pilot programme to explore delivering a free and healthy daily school lunch to Year 1 to 8 (primary and intermediate aged) students. A pilot approach means we can work with schools and suppliers to test different ways of delivering nutritious lunches, and adapt and refine as we go. The scope of the pilot is focused on year 1-8 students and is limited to invited schools.

Providing 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.

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

Participants in the programme

Fifty nine schools have already agreed to participate in the pilot and will begin providing lunches throughout Terms 1 and 2 2020. Additional schools will be invited to take part in Terms 3 and 4. By the start of 2021, approximately 21,000 students in around 120 schools across three regions (Bay of Plenty/Waiariki, Hawke's Bay/Tairāwhiti, and Otago/Southland) will receive a school lunch.

Those schools invited into the programme have communities facing greater socio-economic barriers. These three regions were chosen as they best suited the trial nature of the pilot, allowing testing across different settings. This includes a mix of schools and kura in urban, rural and isolated locations, North Island and South Island, with a variety of relationships to existing food programmes.

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.

Nutrition and safety

We are working with schools, communities, and nutrition and health experts to implement the programme. There is no set lunch menu for the pilot. 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.

Schools that provide their own lunches must comply with Food Act, understand the Ministry of Health’s health and nutrition guidelines, and be aware of allergies and allergens. 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 an average cost of $5 ‘per child, per day’ basis to cover food, preparation, and delivery. 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.

The costs of delivering schools lunches will be included in the evaluation expected following the conclusion of this two-year pilot programme.


Evaluation of the pilot programme starts 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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