Geoff Johnson: Lack of breakfast gets in the way of learning

The adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day might well have been coined by teachers who witness what happens to students who come to school hungry.

When Vancouver Island University nursing professor Anita Carroll sent her students out into the schools as part of their training, they discovered what teachers and Statistics Canada already had told us — children of all ages are disproportionately affected by poverty in B.C. and Canada.

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In 2014, the most recent year of Statistics Canada’s estimate, 19.8 per cent of B.C.’s children were living in poverty. B.C.’s child-poverty rate was also higher than Canada’s child-poverty rate of 18.5 per cent in 2014.

The nursing students looked at data provided by the University of British Columbia’s Human Early Learning Partnership. That information demonstrated that about one in three children, or about 14,000 kindergarten students in the province, started school with vulnerabilities in one or more areas that are critical not only to learning, but to overall healthy development.

There has been little substantial progress on the issue since the passage of the 1989 House of Commons all-party resolution to eliminate child poverty in Canada by the year 2000.

Childhood poverty, linked as it is to poor health, is not something community nurses can do much about.

But aware of the fact that a significant number of children arrived at school each day with a bag of chips and a Slurpee for breakfast — or sometimes no breakfast at all, Caroll and another nurse, Dina Holbrook, along with Cowichan chef Fatima da Silva, set about developing a breakfast program that delivers 60 to 80 nutritious morning meals to elementary-school students. Another 60 to 90 breakfasts go to a middle school.

The preparation work is done in the kitchen of Cowichan’s Zanatta winery Vinoteca restaurant which is rented by da Silva, who also trains volunteers in FoodSafe.

A recent community fundraising dinner was supported by 140 people and again, da Silva and the nurses volunteered their time and energy.

Anybody who has ever spent time in public schools knows it is not uncommon for some kids to arrive and try to start a day's learning either with an empty stomach or a stomach rumbling from a combination of chips, a Slurpee and a chocolate bar.

Teachers cannot ignore this problem even if they wanted to, and many teachers routinely bring a second or third sandwich every day in their own lunch kits.

They will be the first to tell you that hungry kids cannot be categorized by the culture or the socio-economic standing of their parents. Living in poverty, as one in five of our kids in B.C. do, makes life difficult but, too often, neglecting to feed a child is not always about inadequate household income.

A 2012 report by the Globe and Mail outlining a two-year study by the Toronto District School Board validates what educators always knew but couldn’t substantiate with data: A hungry child just isn’t ready to learn.

Sixty-one per cent of students who ate breakfast on most days at school achieved or exceeded provincial standards in reading, compared with 50 per cent who never had the morning meals, or ate only a few days a week.

Twenty-eight per cent of students who had breakfast on most days were at-risk in science compared with 44 per cent who never had the meals or did only a few days a week.

Seventy-five per cent of students who ate morning meals on most days of a week rated their own health as excellent, compared with 58 per cent of whose who never ate breakfast or ate breakfast only once or twice a week.

Are Carroll, Holbrook and da Silva and the Vinoteca kitchen making a difference in their community? The question answers itself. Their brand of community activism goes well beyond the immediate needs of hungry kids. Their breakfast program is a real investment in the futures of the children they are supporting.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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