December 14, 2011

Free breakfast and lunch programs provide a major boost to learning results

Ignazia Nancy Boucher prepares food at Vancouver's Grandview elementary school as part of the Breakfast for Learning program. Photograph by: Ward Perrin, PNG

If there’s one dramatic no-brainer in our collective desire to see kids’ classroom performances improve, it’s this: to feed the mind, first feed the body.

For half a century now, scholarly study after scholarly study has found that hungry or ill-nourished kids are at a disadvantage when it comes to the mental demands of classroom learning.

From India to South America and from the United States to the United Kingdom, teachers observe the striking impacts that good nutrition has on school attendance, classroom alertness, learning ability and, perhaps equally important, on social development.

In one Peruvian study, researchers noted wryly that in addition to the “significant and positive effect on short-term memory, arithmetic and reading comprehension” observed in students participating in a school breakfast program, one unexpected “negative” appeared – kids in the break-fast group spent less time with their teachers and more time on the playground during recess.

In one school breakfast program, U.S. researchers noted that lateness fell by eight per cent during the first three months, suspensions for disruptive behaviour fell by half and the average academic performance for all students in all grades and across all subjects increased sharply.

When similar schools were compared, those in a program providing all students with a nutritious breakfast saw a five-point increase in the percent-age of students scoring at or above the satisfactory level of achievement.

Researchers who reviewed scientific literature on the effect on the mental functions of children and teenagers concluded that a nutritious breakfast positively influenced learning ability and behaviour and appeared to play a role in the prevention of learning and behavioural disorders, in particular attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

On the other side of the ledger, children who arrive at school hungry make more errors, have slower memory recall, have lower math scores and are more likely to repeat a grade.

In British Columbia, where the Breakfast for Learning pro-gram has been operating since 2001, the organization reports that among schools qualifying for nutrition funding, 85 per cent reported improvements in student attention spans, 80 per cent noted tardiness declined and 82 per cent said student behaviour improved.

So, if you want an almost overnight improvement in test scores in mathematics, reading and the other foundations of future learning, make sure every child in every class-room has had a simple, nutritious breakfast and gets a similar lunch.

However, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation tells me that despite commendable community and provincial government support for meal programs, delivery is inconsistent. Nor is there a consistent process for families applying for existing meal program subsidies. Some families are reluctant to apply because there’s a perceived stigma. In some schools, teachers voluntarily bring food and use their personal resources to surreptitiously dole out granola bars to make sure hungry kids get fed.

In Vancouver, I’m told, there are 11 breakfast programs and no funding comes from the school board although, as I say, there’s much commendable work by volunteers and com-munity groups.

Having looked through the evidence in preparing to write this piece in support of The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund and the Adopt-a-School initiative, I’m now convinced that school nutrition is such a quick and profound fix that we would get by far the biggest bang for our buck by finding stable long-term funding for a universal free breakfast and lunch program in every public school.

Part of it, of course, involves mobilizing community resources, part in motivating government to coordinate a sustainable structure, part in educating both children and parents about the value of good nutrition. But most important is simply making sure that the learning furnace is properly stoked while the learning is taking place.

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