Impacting education outcomes one meal at a time

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Forget for a moment the dazzling, star-studded Hollywood walk of fame in Los Angeles, the tempting images of London’s Tower Bridge or even the breath-taking images of the Swiss Alps surrounded by vivid green grass at the base and a picturesque peppering of white snow at the peak – trying to conjure up images of Africa brings only pictures of strife, poverty and hunger to the mind.

We see these images almost every day as our minds unquestioningly imbibe hours upon hours of television: emaciated young children with glazed eyes and distended bellies, their little bodies fraught with marasmus.

Doctors often attempt to intervene, rolling up the sleeves of their white coats to stuff these young ones full of high protein drinks and pumping them full of clear fluids which they provide intravenously.  This usually amounts to nothing more than a temporary solution, with the major problem being at home.  Given the current economic climate which has plunged many African households into a state of turmoil, food security remains a major issue for a large portion of the continent’s inhabitants.

 But this issue is by no means exclusive to the African continent. This, sadly, is the daily reality for thousands of school children from across the world. In America, one in six learners faces hunger on a daily basis.  This issue is explored at length in an article titled “Hunger Pains: Teaching Hungry Students” which appeared in a blog post compiled by academics from Concordia University in Portland last year.

According to the post, research by US based organisation called No Kid Hungry revealed that over 13 million learners from low-income areas go to school hungry daily, while a whopping 12 million learners live in “food insecure” homes.

In the United Kingdom, newspaper The Independent earlier this month reported that malnourished learners are arriving at school so hungry they are taking food out of rubbish bins.  One in 10 of those learners come from families who rely on food banks – free feeding schemes hosted by churches or the greater community to assist in feeding the hungry.  In 2017, Unicef said 19% of UK learners under the age of 15 live with adults who struggle to buy food.

Eating is perhaps the most natural of all of the biological functions of the human body: when the stomach gives that small stab of pain to indicate emptiness, the hand instinctively reaches for food to satisfy the impulse. For other people, hunger symptoms are a lot more severe.  This phenomenon can leave one feeling giddy, light-headed, shaky and weak – with these feelings often unearthing a host of both psychological and emotional responses too.

Imagine experiencing these complex feelings on a daily basis, trapped in the knowledge that you can do nothing to alleviate them, while still facing the daunting task of a full day of learning ahead? How, then, are these children expected to learn on an empty stomach?  And just what are the results of this disastrous situation?

South African nutritionist Professor Salome Kruger from the University of the North West explained that breakfast is an integral part of a learner’s life. She explained that school age children, even those who are of preschool age and in an early childhood development setting, require this vital meal as research shows that those learners who eat in the morning perform better at cognitive tests when compared to hungry learners.

A research paper compiled by Hochfeld et al. which appeared in the International Journal of Educational Development titled “Does school breakfast make a difference?  An evaluation of an in-school breakfast programme in South Africa”, backs this up. Describing an evaluation of an in-school breakfast feeding programme at a non-fee paying schools in Johannesburg, the research paper aimed to determine whether or not there are any changes in the anthropometric and school performance outcomes of children receiving the breakfast feeding programme.

 The results? 

An improvement in the nutritional status across all the schools for height-for-age and for Body Mass Index (BMI) for age measurements over the evaluation period. “While these improvements cannot be attributed to the breakfast programme solely, these results are suggestive of the positive influence of the … breakfast programme and affirm the potential of the programme,” the study reads. “There were very positive and statistically significant national changes over the period of the pilot programme, most dramatically in the reduction in numbers of overweight and stunted children … the educators and principals as well as the learners indicated a strong perception that the breakfast programme impacted on children’s ability to learn by improving concentration and participation in classroom activities.”

A lack of breakfast, according to Professor Kruger, leaves children feeling lethargic and unable to concentrate.  This is understandable, she explained further, as a long fast leaves the stomach empty, leading to the body breaking down muscle tissue in order to maintain adequate blood glucose levels. 

Our mothers have for years drilled into our heads that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  But this statement was also accompanied by a selection of other food myths, such as eating carrots can help one see in the dark or that drinking milk will help ones bones to remain strong. Science has proven that carrots contain Vitamin A which is needed by the body to synthesise rhodopsin, a pigment in the eyes needed for low light conditions.  A Vitamin A deficiency leads to nyctalopia, or night blindness. Science has also proven that a calcium deficiency leads to osteoporosis.

 Why, then, would we question the importance of breakfast for our daily survival?

 

Eugene Absolom is the Executive Director at Tiger Brands Foundation which provides in-school breakfast at 92 no-fee paying schools across South Africa. The Foundation provides meals to 63 500 learners each school day.