‘We notice what they do or don’t eat’: How schools are tackling student hunger

There are no UberEats deliveries or parents dropping off takeaway at Homestead Senior Secondary College, in Melbourne’s west.

When Homestead opened its doors last year, it decided to use some equity funding – money usually allocated for support staff and additional resourcing for children – for a free school lunch program.

Principal Michael Fawcett said the meals were designed to “bring our cohort together and establish that adult culture of socialising. And because of COVID and the huge amount of families in Point Cook who lost jobs … it had that additional benefit that I know families have been rapt about.”

Homestead Senior Secondary College students lining up for a free school lunch.

Homestead provides three healthy meals a week, such as lasagne, curries and noodles, for about $4 a head.

“The chefs are good at hiding vegetables,” Mr Fawcett said. “We wanted teenagers to eat a healthy meal because, like every school, we notice what they do or don’t eat during the day.”

The Victorian Education Department and charity Foodbank Australia launched the School Breakfast Clubs Program five years ago to provide free breakfast at hundreds of schools.

When Victoria’s schools shut during the state’s deadly second wave of coronavirus, some schools continued to order and distribute food to their school communities. This resulted in the equivalent of more than 1 million student meals being distributed each term, Foodbank said.

But far fewer schools offer free lunch, and some charities expect demand to rise in 2021 as COVID-19 income support dries up.

Lyndon Galea is founder of Eat Up, which delivers sandwiches to primary and secondary schools across Victoria, NSW and Queensland.

Mr Galea said demand for emergency food surged from August and he was nervous about student hunger in 2021.

“Talking to teachers and other charities, we are sadly expecting that need to grow,” he said.

Mooroopna Park Primary School is one of Victoria’s most disadvantaged schools, located near Shepparton.

Principal Hayden Beaton said employing a full-time chef to cook breakfast, morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea for students had “changed a lot of kids’ eating habits, hopefully for life”.

“It’s a real community operation,” he said. “The Lighthouse Project helped us raise some money and get the community involved in terms of donating food.”

Mr Beaton said student attendance was at a 10-year high before schools went to remote learning last year.

“That data was really impressive for us, ” he said. “As a school, we have no doubt it has been really positive in terms of student engagement, parent engagement and attendance, which ultimately reflects in students outcomes.”

Julie Podbury, former president of the Australian Principals Federation, said it was common for schools to discreetly support hungry children, often by funding an account at the canteen.

She said using equity funding for food left schools with less money for additional staff, so it made sense to get money from an outside source.

Mr Fawcett said Homestead was looking for charitable support to continue free school lunches this year, as its student numbers doubled to up to 300.

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