Inside the Fight for Free, Healthy School Food

“No child should be too hungry to learn.” #projectliteracy

This story is part of an ongoing campaign called the Alphabet of Illiteracy. By using letters themselves—the foundation of reading and writing—Project Literacy examines the ways illiteracy underpins some of the greatest challenges facing the world today. Below, we explore the letter M, for Malnutrition. Learn more about the relationship between nutrition and human potential when you click on the letter M.

Image courtesy of Magic Breakfast

You know what they say: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Recent research suggests that breakfast can help children concentrate, improve their memory, and succeed at school. But for many families, breakfast is a tall order. In developing countries, the United Nations’ World Food Programme estimates that 66 million primary-school-age children attend class hungry. That spells trouble for their ability to learn. According to a 2013 report from Save the Children, kids who are chronically malnourished are 20 percent less literate than those with nutritious diets.

So it’s no surprise that school breakfast programs are popping up all over the world. In the United Kingdom, the nonprofit organization Magic Breakfast feeds 23,500 kids every school day. It distributes protein-enriched bagels, low-sugar cereal, porridge, and fruit juice to 480 schools across the country, free of charge.

Each meal costs Magic Breakfast only 22 pence per child—or about 32 cents USD. Magic Breakfast views it as a smart investment to make, given the benefits that breakfast has been proven to provide.

In a new study from Cardiff University, researchers traced a direct link between eating breakfast and doing better in school. Among 5,000 students ages 9 to 11, it was found that kids who ate breakfast scored higher marks on standardized tests in English, mathematics, and science. Other research has also linked breakfast to higher school attendance, as well as stronger attention and memory.

Despite these benefits, breakfast has become a challenge for many families, both in the U.K. and around the world. Between 2007 and 2014, food prices rose by 12 percent in the U.K. Over the same period, wages dropped by 7.6 percent. Many low-income families face a growing challenge to meet their basic food needs. An estimated 3 million people are malnourished in the U.K., and many more are at risk of becoming malnourished. Worldwide, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that malnutrition costs the global economy $3.5 trillion every year.

Carmel McConnell, the founder and chief executive of Magic Breakfast, says the hardest part of her job is meeting parents who struggle to put food on the table. She hopes her organization can help take the pressure off low-income families, while giving students the energy and nutrients they need to learn.

“We make it entirely about fuel for learning,” she explains. “Just get your child to school early. They’ll have a great time, they’ll play with their friends, there’s tons of resources, they’ll eat a good breakfast, and then they’ll be able to concentrate.”

That’s how the breakfast club runs at the Willow Primary School (“the Willow”) in Totenham, London. Every week, the Willow serves Magic Breakfast to about 80 kids at a morning breakfast club. Another 180 children dig into bagels and juice in their classrooms.

“The club is very quiet, very homey, very nurturing and warm,” says Umarani Nathan, the parental engagement lead who coordinates the school’s Magic Breakfast program. “The children sit down, eat some bagels, and talk. Then they’ll go outside and have a run around on the playground.”

Nathan adds, “We also have a separate library with reading facilities, where children join what we call the accelerated reading scheme. They’ll come in and eat their breakfast, then race upstairs to do their quiz and get a new book before school starts.”

Like other schools that have partnered with Magic Breakfast, the Willow has a relatively high percentage of low-income students. For some kids, the breakfast club provides a meal they would otherwise miss. For others, it’s simply a chance to enjoy breakfast with friends. Every student is welcome to participate, which helps to challenge the stigma associated with getting a free meal.

The club is also “a bit of a lifesaver” for students who have long commutes to school, says Nathan. It’s not uncommon for some families to travel one and a half to two hours by bus to the Willow. In some homes, kids as young as 8 are getting ready for school and traveling on their own, while parents work early morning shifts.

“Coming here means they can have breakfast with their friends,” says Nathan. “They know there’s food to eat, they don’t have to find something at home, they just have to get up and come to school.”

The promise of breakfast may help explain the improved attendance and punctuality that many schools notice after launching Magic Breakfast programs.

Over the last year alone, punctuality at the Willow has improved by 20 percent. Teachers also report other changes in students. Kids seem calmer, more focused, and less lethargic after eating breakfast. They’re more enthusiastic in class. Some are even less likely to fight in the schoolyard.

Perhaps most important, breakfast clubs provide a place for students to learn about healthy eating. The link between learning and nutrition goes both ways: Kids who have the capacity to understand the principles of good nutrition are better equipped to make healthy food choices. And helping students fill their bellies and succeed in school might have lasting intergenerational effects. Experts have long recognized the link between maternal education and the ability of a household to secure access to a steady supply of healthy food. When moms know what’s nutritious, so do their children. And literate kids are better prepared to make good choices about what they eat, while developing the earning potential, knowledge, and skills necessary to provide for their own families later in life.

McConnell would like to bring the benefits of a good breakfast for learning to students across the U.K.—and eventually the world. “The core thing, though, is that poverty is outstripping our abilities,” she says. “We've got 280 schools on our waiting list right now, telling us they’re unable to teach because of the number of children who are really hungry. Even though there’s an economic recovery, the trickle-down isn’t happening.”

Addressing hunger on a grand scale requires top-level change to tackle poverty. “We need to have an economy that works for everyone,” she emphasizes. “There has to be work that pays enough to feed your family.” Indeed, that’s the recommendation of the United Nations’ FAO:

“Investing US$1.2 billion annually in micronutrient supplements, food fortification, and biofortification of staple crops for five years would generate annual benefits of US$15.3 billion, a benefit-to-cost ratio of almost 13 to 1, and would result in better health, fewer deaths, and increased future earnings.”

In the meantime, Magic Breakfast is working to build a network of allies who agree that “no child should be too hungry to learn.” To help support their efforts, consider donating, raising money, or sponsoring a breakfast club—all to help build a world where all kids get enough to eat. With good nutrition, children can get the energy and nutrients they need to support their physical and mental development, achievement at school, and long-term success.

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