Research consistently shows that students who eat breakfast before school perform better in the classroom. Sadly, many Canadian children head to school hungry because they don’t have nutritious food at home.
Bobbi Turner is the program manager for Food & Friends, a student nutrition program run by the Children’s Foundation of Guelph and Wellington in Ontario. The program serves kids of all backgrounds in the Guelph area nutritious meals, such as quiche and fresh fruit. It’s a haven for children whose cupboards are often bare.
Sometimes students end up in the principal’s office because they don’t have enough food, says Turner. One of those students was a child Turner refers to as Jimmy.* “Before the program, Jimmy was always getting into trouble for stealing other kids’ lunches,” says Turner. “So one day at the program Jimmy ate 6 pieces of quiche and said, ‘I think I feel full.’ The staff were like, ‘Well, of course you’re full – you ate a lot.’ That’s when Jimmy said that was the first time he had ever felt full.”
There are too many Jimmys across the country. In Canada, 1 in 5 children are at risk of going to school on an empty stomach “due to a lack of access nutritious food,” says the Breakfast Clubs of Canada. In First Nations communities and immigrant communities, these numbers are higher. That means 4 or more kids in a class of 20 may not be able to pay attention in class this morning, because they are hungry.
Government funding covers only a fraction of food program costs
Canada is one of the only major industrialized countries without a national school nutrition program. The provinces help fund programs, but the level of support differs from province to province. In Ontario, the province donates up to 15% of food costs for school food programs, but the schools themselves are on the hook to cover the other 85%. That leaves a significant funding gap that not every school can fill, no matter how much fundraising they do.
Turner says Canada could benefit tremendously from a national food program. “The Canadian government should be concerned, because children are our most valuable asset,” says Turner. “These are our future doctors and nurses, lawyers, and business owners. We need to ask ourselves why, in a rich country like Canada, will so many children be sitting in school feeling hungry today?”
Studies show that students who attend school meal programs have better grades and are more likely to finish school than children who come to school hungry. A 2011 study by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) offered a morning meal program to students at schools in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto. By tracking the academic data of students who participated in the program, it found that students who ate breakfast 3 days or more per week were more likely to have academic success compared to those who ate morning meals less often. Students in the study also got better marks in math and literacy testing, and earned more credits than students who were not eating morning meals regularly.
5 ways school nutrition programs help kids
- Students get to try new foods. As a result, they often become more open to eating healthy food at home.
- Students make new friends and are mentored by program volunteers and staff. “Many students don't have a positive home environment, and look forward to seeing a consistent, smiling face each morning (at the breakfast program),” says Turner. Students also mingle with other students and make new friends.
- Behaviour issues improve. Students are eating healthy foods rather than sugary snacks and have time to de-escalate by socializing with other students before school. "By sitting at a communal table community starts to form, and we teach students to develop healthy living habits that last a lifetime,” says Brian Banks, the community development officer for Nutrition for Learning, a program that serves students in the Waterloo, Ontario region.
- Grades improve. As kids’ ability to pay attention increases, their memories improve and they do better in tests.
- Students are absent from school less, due to better health. Organizations such as Food & Friends and the YMCA rely heavily on volunteers and donations to run their nutrition programs, says Banks. There are many benefits to student nutrition programs, both for volunteers and for the students, adds Turner. “Feeding our children doesn’t just provide benefits to that child; it helps our community and our country.”
* Name changed.