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School Breakfast Enhances Learning

The two friends were beaming at the news. They had topped the GSAT class at their school and were headed for traditional high schools. Their teacher was extremely proud of them as she recalled where they were coming from. “Tracey used to be dull and listless, and would often be caught sleeping in class. On several occasions, she ‘wet’ herself before she reached the bathroom, and she often came to school hungry”. Tracey was from a household of 8 children being second to last, and lived with her mother and the common-law partner. How greatly she had improved in physical appearance from the scrawny malnourished looking child in Grade 1. Her friend Temoy was consistently absent from school for two to three weeks at a time, and then she would appear for 2-3 days and be missing again. When asked the reason, she said she was hungry, or she had no clothes. She was the third child in a household of 5 children. Her mother took in day washing, and her father was a field worker for one of the farmers.

Both students were low performers in Grade 1, averaging 5% and 6% in mathematics and language arts examinations. Then the breakfast programme came to their school. Since receiving breakfast, Temoy’s attendance and punctuality improved. She was required to report to the breakfast coordinator teacher daily to ensure that she got adequate food. Both girls became quite alert, and within two years, their academic performance improved significantly with averages of 40% and 50% in the two basic subjects. By Grade six, their grades were 60% and 70%, and they were considered among the brightest in the GSAT class. There was, however, much remedial work involved. The school benefited from a donation of a computer laboratory, and the students spent much time
with daily practice using the literacy and numeracy software to improve their skills.

Importance of Balanced Breakfast

“But”, said their teacher, “it all began with the regular breakfast programme”. Many students in school do not benefit from instruction because they are too hungry to concentrate in class. Their school attendance may be erratic, and teachers eventually give up on them in frustration. Too many children attend school having had only a cup of tea
or maybe some crackers with it. A needs assessment survey of Jamaican infant, primary and all-age schools in 1999 showed that approximately 40% of students received inadequate breakfast.

A nutritious breakfast provides approximately one-fourth to one-third of the daily energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals requirements. Persons, including children who miss breakfast, are more likely to be anaemic and therefore lethargic and apathetic, which interferes with learning. Most of our iron-rich foods are culturally considered breakfast foods, e.g. liver, tin sardines or mackerel, egg and Callaloo (eaten with fish). Calcium is another mineral provided from ‘breakfast foods’ like milk with cereal. This deficit is not likely to be made good from the other meals eaten daily since those foods are not as rich in these minerals.

Studies show that children who eat breakfast have higher nutrient intakes, whereas those who skip breakfast average less than 2/3 of their nutrient requirements. In addition, the consequences of hunger may be physical, such as stomach pain, headaches, muscle fatigue and sleepiness, or psychosocial, such as anxiety, nervousness, anger, fidgetiness and confusion, all of which interfere with learning. A consistent, healthy food intake throughout the day and year will help meet critical educational outcomes in addition to health outcomes. Schools can promote the importance of eating breakfast. Tracey and Temoy now look forward to breakfast daily and would be very disappointed if, for some reason, they should be denied this well-balanced meal.

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