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"The milk of human kindness?": Responding to precarity and hunger with the private sector and a return to charity

This research investigated the phenomenon of free school milk in Aotearoa New Zealand as an exemplar for broader shifts in understandings of poverty and hunger, responsibility and citizenship. The provision of free milk to school children has occurred in two distinct periods in the history of Aotearoa New Zealand. The first school milk initiative was introduced in 1937 to bolster childhood nutrition after the deprivations of the Great Depression, as part of the formation of the welfare state. This first free milk scheme lasted until 1967. The re-introduction of school milk nationally in 2013 occurred amidst public concerns about growing numbers of hungry children in schools and the consequent proliferation of ad hoc food in schools schemes. The theoretical framework of community psychology provides a broad framework for an interdisciplinary project that contextualises the material and symbolic object of school milk. The everyday lifeworlds of those experiencing hardship was part of this investigation, both historically and in the present period. Narrative psychology methods were applied to the collection and analysis of empirical materials that relate to hunger and responses to hunger in the 1930s, and the 2000s. A narrative approach provided continuity across three categories of empirical materials, incorporating an historical analysis; a contemporary media and policy analysis; and extended semi-structured interviews with parents feeding their families on low incomes. The analysis incorporated complexity and identified structures of feeling, which are tacit but knowable sets of historically and culturally constructed understandings that shape responses to hungry children and their parents. This investigation found that approaches to hungry children and families around the period that school milk was re-introduced in 2013 were situated within neoliberal narratives that emphasised children in schools as targets for compassion without acknowledgement of the historical, social, political and economic context for contemporary food insecurity. A dominant settler context that values self-reliance and aspiration in a presumed land of plenty shapes persistent notions of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’. Diversified non-state responses to hunger and increased targeting in the contemporary period reflect historical assumptions that are further amplified within the neoliberal characterisations of ‘welfare dependent’ parents. Neoliberal narratives also build and sustain the notion that the market can provide the appropriate solution to hunger in schools. My research found that although both the 1937 and 2013 schemes occurred in contexts of poverty and hunger, there are important differences between the two schemes. During the 1930s, milk in schools formed part of a society-wide effort to reduce the harms of poverty for families and their children. In contrast, the promotion of school milk in 2013 avoided connection to either poverty or parents, treating schools as spaces carved out for commercial interests. In rendering parents and whānau invisible, and prioritising the child as a future consumer, milk in schools reflects the position of many contemporary responses to hungry children. What is distinctive about school milk in Aotearoa New Zealand is its symbolically important role in drawing attention away from contemporary precarity and towards a nostalgic imagined past.  
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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