Although we’re all familiar with the obligatory cafeteria scene in US teen movies, and with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver working with Dinner Ladies to make nutritious ‘school dinners’ in the UK, we don’t really associate Australian schools with providing free meals to students. However, the history of school breakfast programs in this country can actually be traced back to the late 1970s and there are currently hundreds of breakfast clubs providing students with a nutritious breakfast before school. This week on School Stream, we look at the vital role of breakfast, how school breakfast clubs support students facing food insecurity, and where to find resources for your school.

School Stream makes communication between home and school a breeze – for families and administrators. Find out more or read on for our feature on the importance of breakfast. 

Rumbling tummies at school

Most teachers and administrators will have made emergency Vegemite sandwiches for kids who come without lunch and some teachers keep a bowl of fruit in their classroom ‘just in case’. To zoom out for a national perspective, research in the area estimates that due to issues of food insecurity, as many as one in five children in Australia start the day without breakfast, and about 15% arrive at school without lunch or money to buy it from the canteen. Those Vegemite sandwiches may not feel like much at the time but for the kid with a rumbling tummy, it makes all the difference. 

Why is breakfast important?

We are frequently reminded that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. There is a laundry list of reasons why, with both short-term and long-term implications. The following from The Conversation gives more than a decent snapshot of why breakfast is the meal of champions when it comes to children and teens. 

In the short term:

  • Eating a good quality breakfast can increase feelings of alertness and motivation to learn. 
  • Children’s high metabolic turnover and rapid growth rates mean they need optimal nutrition. 
  • Children have higher demands on their glycogen (or energy) stores overnight as they sleep, and as they generally sleep longer than adults, children have a longer “fasting” time (longer time without food overnight). Therefore, eating a nutritious breakfast is especially important to provide fuel for the oxidation of glucose.
  • When blood glucose levels are low, hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol are released which can cause feelings of agitation and irritability. This can then affect a child’s concentration and may even cause destructive outbursts. 
  • Children who don’t eat breakfast struggle to summon enough energy in the morning to cope with the demands of school.

In the long term:

  • Eating a good breakfast can lead to better academic performance and a higher enjoyment of school. 
  • Children who regularly skip breakfast are more likely to be disruptive in class or to be absent from school. 
  • Repeatedly eating breakfast can lead to children learning to associate feelings of well-being with feeling less hungry.
  • Research has found that a good nutritional profile can lead to sustained improved performance. This would be much harder to achieve if kids skip breakfast.
  • There is also an association with mental health and a good quality breakfast. Common breakfast foods such as milk, fortified breakfast cereals and bread are good sources of nutrients that affect brain function. 
  • Research has found that eating a breakfast with a variety of food groups that increase the intake of vitamins and minerals at the start of the day can lead to better mental health in adolescents.

Why do breakfast clubs at school work?

Schools are ideally placed to run breakfast clubs or other emergency food programs. Not only do school-based breakfast clubs give students the nutritional bounce they need to power through a school day, but they are places where kids can feel welcomed and connected to their school environment – before the school day has even begun. 

“Positive relationships are being built between peers, staff and volunteers. Most schools use their Breakfast Clubs for informal learning around nutrition, table manners and other life skills. Many schools foster student leadership through roles at their Breakfast Club. And some schools report improved punctuality and attendance as a result of having a Breakfast Club.” Food Bank 

And we all know how important a sense of belonging and connection is if we want our students to do well in an academic and wellbeing context. 

Resources, Resources, Resources

There are a multitude of resources online when it comes to starting breakfast programs at school, here are a few to get you started.

  • Food Bank has a resource section for every state and territory in Australia.
  • Schools in South Australia will be familiar with Kick Start for Kids. They currently serve 50,000 breakfasts at 350 schools a week and their volunteers make 10,000 cheese and Vegemite sandwiches. Get in touch if you would like to enquire about starting a breakfast club or donating food to support their work.
  • Eat Up make sandwiches for hungry kids. Lots and lots of sandwiches. We’re talking 850,000 and counting since 2013! They operate in most states and territories.  

A big thank you to educators, schools, administrators, school leaders who work so hard for their students in almost every area of their lives. Big thanks also go to all those working hard to support children and teens experiencing food insecurity. We appreciate you.

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