Gordon Campbell on miserly school lunches, and the banning of TikTok’s Gaza coverage

School lunch imageAnother week goes by in the Luxon government’s efforts to roll back the past 70 years of social progress. The school lunches programme is to be downgraded by $107 million, and women need bother their heads no longer about pay equity, let alone expect ACC to provide adequate sexual violence prevention services.

Meanwhile, the government is keeping up its campaign to make Maori invisible again, while Shane Jones wants us all to go back to living in denial about climate change. In a classically retro move on foreign policy, Foreign Minister Winston Peters is primping for an AUKUS invitation, so that New Zealand can march into combat again beside our old allies, in order to beat back the yellow hordes. At home, we’re being urged to keep drinking the tap water regardless, even after the government has removed the (Havelock North inspired) red tape and regulation that’s been getting in the way of farmers’ natural right to pollute the waterways.

In short, we’re being governed as though we should be still living in the good old days of 1955, just before rock’n’roll put the nation’s youth on track to end up in boot camps. In his latest effort to turn back the clock, ACT Party leader David Seymour has portrayed the government’s mean-spirited funding cuts to the school lunch programme as a crusade against “wokeness.” Who knew that hummus and sushi were telltale signs of elitism and extravagance, and tools of cultural indoctrination?

No food for thought

Nice try, Seymour. Over the last 50 years, heartland New Zealand has always felt leery about any broadening of the Kiwi diet via the introduction of fanciful foreign foods like quiche, lentils, hummus and yoghurt. Fear and suspicion also greeted the arrival on these shores of tofu, avocados, kale, sushi, and quinoa. As of now, the credentials of jackfruit and kimchi are still being examined at the border.

Point being, any broadening of the Kiwi diet beyond two lamb chops, mashed spuds and cabbage has been treated as the cultural equivalent of tossing a hand grenade into the national kitchen. It’s a wonder that nachos and pizza ever got the tick of approval, but then again, both of those dubious edibles can be redeemed by lashings of cheese from down on the farm.

Thankfully, the high school kids that Seymour is targeting now take hummus and sushi in their stride. In fact, most of them seem to welcome the healthy diversity that such foods bring to their diets. Not for much longer though. Starting in early 2025, the government aims to downgrade the quality of school lunches for children in year seven classes, and upwards.

The funding needed to deliver healthy school lunches to these older children will be slashed by almost two thirds, from $8 to $3 a meal. To meet the target of saving $107 million, the menu will be shrunk and food will be bulk purchased, rather than locally prepared. In this government’s notion of efficiency, it is better to spend money on transporting low nutritional value food to geographically dispersed regions, than on spending the money on procuring high quality food that’s been prepared adjacent to the point of consumption.

Being Unhelpful

To be fair, the government announcement was not entirely bad news. Some early childhood centres will be funded to serve free lunches. (Its also cheaper: under fives eat less than teenagers.) Nominally at least, the funding for healthy and locally prepared meals will remain in place for primary school children up to year seven.

However, as the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has pointed out, question-marks now hover (a) over the primary schools that currently teach years 0-8, and also (b) over the likes of Manurewa High School, given that its kitchen prepares the food for local primary and intermediate schools. Seymour’s austerity drive will threaten such efficiencies.

The basics bear repeating. As CPAG also noted, one in five children in New Zealand live in homes where, each week, food routinely runs out. This measure of food poverty can double – to around 40% – for children who are disabled, who belong to Māori and Pasifika families, or who live in geographically deprived areas.

CPAG’s nutrition spokesperson Emeritus Professor Elaine Rush has voiced her regret at Seymour’s use of the word “extravagant” when describing the current school lunches model, given that for many children, their school lunch may well be the only meal they get all day. “It is unhelpful for Mr Seymour to describe healthy food as an extravagance, when this should be the benchmark we are striving [to achieve] for all of our children.”

The West Bank, and Negev

An estimated 300,000 Bedouin live in the Negev desert in southern Israel. Like other racial minorities trying to eke out a living under Israel’s apartheid system, they are systematically denied basic human rights e.g. to property and shelter. This week, Al Jazeera carried this story about the bulldozing of 50 Bedouin homes – making 400 people homeless – as part of a process of clearing land for the ultimate benefit of Israeli settlers.

While (for good reason) world attention is focused on the fresh horrors unfolding in Rafah, Israel’s murderous actions on the West Bank (and in the Negev) are being grossly under-reported. As a result, the terrible violence committed by Hamas on October 7 has been safely isolated. By and large, the October 7 attacks have been treated by Western politicians and media as an inexplicable eruption of evil that came out of thin air – rather than being regarded, in context, as a violent backlash to 70 years of displacement and daily oppression.

Censoring rap, and TikTok

The Drake vs Kendrick Lamar rap beef winds onwards into ever – uglier territory – Kendrick says Drake’s a paedophile, Drake says Kendrick’s a wife beater etc. As Pitchfork says in exasperation, this battle has been a miserable spectacle, and a Pyrrhic victory at best, for Kendrick. The inability of either musician to rise above their own egos and use their talents and fandom to engage with what’s happening in the wider world has been depressing.

It has fallen to the hitherto despised pop rapper Macklemore (remember “Thrift Shop”?) to re-awaken rap’s social conscience that once gave us Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” Ice T’ s fantasy of payback for Rodney King, and NWA’s “Fuck the Police.”

Macklemore’s “Hind’s Hall” is an angry tribute to Hind Rajab, a six-year-old killed by the IDF. The building temporarily occupied by students at Columbia University was renamed after her by the protesters. The video of “Hinds Hall” can be most reliably accessed on Macklemore’s X or Instagram accounts, available here and here. YouTube has aggressively censored access to the song as explained here.

Unlike Al Jazeera and the European news networks, the US mainstream media seem to make little or no use of stringers based within Gaza. Some of the reasons may be economic. As US Middle East expert and academic Juan Cole says, US corporate advertisers may have not wanted their products to appear alongside images of wounded Palestinian babies covered in flies.

Within this void, TikTok has become one of the main avenues through which young people around the world are seeing the brutal reality of Gaza, and are protesting against it. In this recent interview between the Republican Party’s former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Romney linked the US government’s moves to ban TikTok with the need to suppress TikTok’s coverage of Gaza. The entire transcript is worth reading as a glimpse into Blinken’s blinkered worldview, but this is the point where Romney brings up TikTok:

SENATOR ROMNEY: A small parenthetical point, which is some wonder why there was such overwhelming support for us to shut down potentially TikTok or other entities of that nature. If you look at the postings on TikTok and the number of mentions of Palestinians relative to other social media sites, it’s overwhelmingly so among TikTok broadcasts. So I’d note that’s of real interest, and the President will get the chance to make action in that regard.

Incredible really, to see Romney advocating political censorship so openly. Thankfully, TikTok is now fighting back in the US courts. As usual, the Techdirt site has published an excellent backgrounder on the legal and constitutional issues involved…Here’s the gist of Techdirt’s moral opposition to the ban:

Until now, the United States has championed the free flow of information around the world as a fundamental democratic principle and called out other nations when they have shut down internet access or banned social media apps and other online communications tools. In doing so, the U.S. has deemed restrictions on the free flow of information to be undemocratic. Enacting this [TikTok]legislation has undermined this long-standing, democratic principle. It has also undermined the U.S. government’s moral authority to call out other nations for when they shut down internet access or ban social media apps and other online communications tools.

And furthermore:

There are a few reasons legislators have given to ban TikTok. One is to change the type of content on the app—a clear First Amendment violation. The second is to protect data privacy. Our lawmakers should work to protect data privacy, but this was the wrong approach. They should prevent any company—regardless of where it is based—from collecting massive amounts of our detailed personal data, which is then made available to data brokers, U.S. government agencies, and even foreign adversaries. They should solve the real problem of out-of-control privacy invasions by enacting comprehensive consumer data privacy legislation. Instead, as happens far too often, our government’s actions are vastly overreaching while also deeply underserving the public.

Amen to all of that.