To feed or not to feed . . .

May 16, 2013

An animation to raise awareness about the issue of child poverty in NZ, and the need for food in schools programmes, has  been released by an educational research project at The University of Auckland.

. . . “NZ is a first world country with a child poverty problem. Poor nutrition is a significant problem in NZ.” says project coordinator, Dr Airini, Head of School of Critical Studies in Education at The University of Auckland. “We have hungry children in our schools. Going to school hungry affects a child’s ability to learn. Healthy food helps children learn. With better education our children might escape the poverty cycle.”

Providing food in schools is likely to be a modest cost compared to the societal benefits of a giving all Kiwi children a healthy start to life. Estimates for implementing food in schools programmes range from $5-$10million a year. Programmes like these promote a healthy diet, and improve children’s school attendance, behaviour, and ability to learn. Breakfast clubs also provide a safe, early morning place to increase social skills and confidence, creating a better school environment.

“Learning is a physical activity. Children need healthy food every day to help them be learning-ready” says Dr Airini. “We wouldn’t expect our All Blacks or Silver Ferns to do their best if they’re hungry. Why would we think children could do their best as learners if they’re hungry? Good food feeds the mind.”

“Teachers, schools and community groups say we need to provide food in schools to help our hungry children”, she says. “In the end, it’s not just hungry kids that benefit, but all New Zealanders.” . . .

This and the animation are pushing the case for someone – community groups, businesses, the government – to provide food in schools.

But over at Offsetting Behaviour Dr Eric Crampton shows that providing food doesn’t necessarily do any good:

A few months ago, Social Service Providers Aotearoa asked me to review the literature on school breakfast programmes and provide an assessment of whether public funding of school breakfast programmes offered value for money.  . .

I was only looking at school breakfast programmes, and so I can’t here comment on school lunch programmes. I’m not sure why we’d expect results to vary greatly, but it’s worth having the caveat.

Anyway, on my best read of the literature, it’s hard to make a case for that we’d get any great benefit from the programmes. Rather, we often find that they don’t even increase the odds that kids eat breakfast at all. Many shift breakfast from at-home to at-school, but among those who hadn’t bothered with breakfast before the programme, not many wind up starting when schools provide it. You can then get kids reporting that they’re less hungry as consequence of the programmes, but it’s awfully hard to reject that the main thing going on is that kids are eating at 9 at school instead of at 7 at home and are consequently less hungry when asked at 11. . . .

So, some bottom lines:

  • School breakfast programmes really don’t seem to increase the likelihood of that kids eat breakfast at all;
  • To the extent that they improve outcomes in some studies, we really can’t tell:
    • whether the effect is from changing the timing of breakfast, in which case we should instead have a morning tea break;
    • whether the effect is any better than just giving those families an equivalent cash transfer. . .

Hungry children won’t be happy children, ready and able to learn as well as those who are properly fed.

Poor nutrition and sub-optimal learning in childhood will almost certainly lead to problems later in life.

But the research shows the solution to children who don’t have enough to eat isn’t as simple as providing food.

Not all schools have chosen to be part of Fonterra’s milk in schools programme which shows a blanket approach wouldn’t be welcome.

It’s a complex problem and the solution must be one which really makes a positive difference.


%d bloggers like this: