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Why are school meals important?

Today is International School Meals Day (ISMD) 2014, which aims to raise awareness of the importance of food and nutrition in education. But what are school meals? Why are they important? What are the links between school meals and education?

breakfast-club-children-eating

The Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children Survey (2010) (1) found that 21% of schoolchildren in the Republic of Ireland report ever going to bed or school hungry as there is not enough food at home. Children who are hungry coming to school are more likely to have lower educational attainment, receive special education support, and are absent from school more often (2). School meals can support children experiencing food poverty and allow them to take full advantage of the educational opportunities available to them. They play an important role in addressing educational inequalities and are shown to be effective in supporting children at risk of leaving school early (3).

School meals can mean any food provided to pupils throughout the school day, so they vary from breakfast clubs to snack clubs to lunch clubs. A key focus of HFfA’s current work is promoting the benefits of breakfast clubs and supporting their growth across Ireland. Through our work with schools and community groups, we have seen that breakfast clubs have unique benefits in supporting the personal, social and educational development of children.

A breakfast club is a safe, social environment where children can eat a nutritious breakfast and interact with friends, parents and teachers before the school day and can take place in schools or community settings. They have a positive impact on school attendance and punctuality (4) which is a key element in addressing educational inequalities. Increased self-esteem and sense of independence are widely reported for children attending breakfast clubs (5). Anecdotal feedback from our work shows that breakfast clubs can build communication and language skills as it is an opportunity for children to engage with adults and peers on an informal basis. Breakfast clubs are more than just a means of providing food to children but are a forum for supporting the personal development and health and well-being of children.

We are currently coordinating a Pilot Programme of Breakfast Clubs where we are working with four schools in north Dublin over an 18-month period to set-up and run a breakfast club. We are evaluating the breakfast clubs throughout the programme to learn more about the challenges that schools face in setting up and running a breakfast club in different settings, explore the different supports and resources available for schools, and identify what else is required to ensure breakfast clubs can be established where there is an identified need. A final report will be available in summer 2014.

Further information and resources are available in our section on Schools and Pilot Programme of Breakfast Clubs. If you have any further questions, please contact me, Sarah Jane Flaherty, at sjflaherty@healthyfoodforall.com or +353 (0)1 5494 643.

References:
1. Kelly, C., Gavin, A., Molcho, M. and NicGabhainn, S. (2012) ‘The Irish Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) Study 2010′, Dublin: Department of Health.
2. Kleinman, R.E., Hall, S., Green, H., Korzec-Ramirez, D., Patton, K., Pagano, M.E. and Murphy, J.M. (2002) ‘Diet, Breakfast and Academic Performance in Children’, Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 46(1), 24-30.
3. The School Completion Programme National Co-ordination Team. (2009) The Core Elements of The School Completion Programme. Dublin: The School Completion Programme.
4. Shemilt, I., O’Brien, M., Thoburn, J., Harvey, I., Belderson, P., Robinson, J. and Camina M. (2003) ‘School breakfast clubs, children and family support’, Children & Society, 17, 100-112.
5. Lucas, P. (2003) ‘Breakfast clubs and school fruit schemes: Promising practice’, London: What Works for Children Group.