Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Do children need breakfast?

This post sits oddly beside the last one about eating in Melbourne, but here it is.

A startling headline appeared in my inbox this week: "Providing breakfast in primary schools – is it the right way to start the day?"

The Health Research Council is helping to fund a study into "the effect of a free healthy breakfast on primary school students and their learning ability, academic performance, and nutrition".

It will look at the Red Cross Breakfast in Schools programme operated by New Zealand Red Cross and Progressive Enterprises. It's been running for two years now, and it gives all decile one primary schools in the country (the schools in the poorest areas) the opportunity to offer their students a healthy breakfast at the start of the school day.

In 2002, a National Children’s Nutrition Survey showed that almost one in five children aged 5-14 years did not regularly eat or drink at home before leaving for school. I know some teenagers hate eating breakfast, even though they need it so much - partly because it means they have to get up slightly earlier. But younger kids both need and want breakfast. The prospect of so many kids trying to cope with school without anything to eat first is awful.

Dozens of other surveys ram home the real problem: not enough money for food, after paying for the inflexible basics of rent and power (and we all know how much that's gone up by). In 2002 one in five households with children said they could only sometimes afford to eat properly.

And that was before the recession and the huge rise in unemployment.

That's why the programme is aimed at the poorest schools. The research team hope that if they can come up with clear proof that the breakfast programme is good for children's learning, this will back up "wider implementation of breakfast programmes as a means to improve the school achievement and health of vulnerable New Zealand children".

It's incredibly sad that in a country which is supposed to be such a great place to bring up children, there are so many poor kids that the Red Cross and a supermarket chain have to come up with school breakfast programmes.

But it's even sadder that precious health research funds have to be spent on proving that children do better at school when they get breakfast than when they don't - yes, really! - in the hope that this programme will get the funds it needs to reach all poor kids.

Why isn't it good enough just to prove that they aren't getting breakfast because they're too poor?


  1. This week the NY Times ran an article about a mother complaining that her children are getting too much food at school.

    Her beef? Parents, and teachers are giving cakes and other things which could be construed as "junk food" to children (i.e. to all children in a class) as treats. She's worried about obesity and such --- probably rightly so, though the NYT article makes her sound rather over the top.

    I found it curious, the problems of children going hungry, and children overeating, standing side by side.

  2. I agree entirely with your view and am appalled by the selective insistence on evidence-based material for policy implementation.

    Food as an aid to learning requires 'evidence' but boot camps for disaffected teenagers or longer prison terms for offenders, do not.