When kids are too hungry to learn

Breakfast Club Video

There is a country in Europe where primary school children are fainting in class because they’ve had nothing to eat since their school lunch the day before. Where teachers dread Friday mornings because Friday is payday, and so many of the children come from homes where there’s no food left in the house on Thursday evening.

That country isn’t Greece. It’s England.

In a week were Martha’s No Seconds blog has raised over £100,000 to feed hungry children in the developing world, and raised awareness of the declining quality of school lunches in many parts of Britain, it’s worth reflecting that in our supposedly developed economy there are numerous children in our schools living in families too poor to feed them properly. According to the charity Magic Breakfast, which provides breakfast clubs in over 200 schools, almost 4 million children in Britain are living in this kind of poverty.

There could be a number of reasons for this. Certainly, if the number and type of applications to food banks are anything to go by, there has been a worrying increase in the number of cases where one or both parents are working, but simply not earning enough to get through the week. The price of food is rising all the time. And no doubt there are cases where the money that is coming in is being spent on the wrong things.

Or sometimes family life is simply too chaotic, for a whole variety of reasons, to accommodate a regular nutritious breakfast. The extended families and close-knit communities that once provided a safety net have broken down in many places (a problem that, incidentally, is likely to get worse if changes in Housing Benefit rules force vulnerable people to relocate to places where they don’t know a living soul).

Before we rush to make snap judgements, there’s a story on the Magic Breakfast website of a family where three children, whose parents are addicts, are being raised by a grandmother, who is also looking after her elderly mother and a handicapped son. That’s about more than poverty. It’s about a family living constantly on the edge of collapse. It may be hard to believe, but being able to send the kids to school early for a bowl of porridge and a glass of orange juice could be the kind of thing that keeps them going.

And what about depression? It’s hard, maybe, to sympathise with a mother of young children who simply can’t get out of bed in the morning. Except, I’ve been there. I’m relatively wealthy, intelligent, well-educated. But I spent years in the depths of chronic depression, when my husband or even occasionally friends had to sort the children out for me. We could afford to keep it in the family. But in communities where those networks simply aren’t there, either compassionate people need to step in or the results become all too public.

We can judge. We can wring our hands and say that everybody ought to be able to get some kind of work somewhere and it only costs about 10p to give a child a bowl of economy Weetabix in the morning. But in the end, does it really matter?

Well it does matter, of course. But the facts remain – many children are arriving in class too hungry to concentrate and learn, thus perpetuating the cycle of low achievement and limited options into another generation. Their bad behaviour, though little or no fault of their own, is exhausting teachers and preventing other children from achieving as staff time is monopolised by the disruptive minority. All this is going on while people like me spend six quid on a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil and witter on about family breakdown and the undeserving poor and how someone ought to do something.

Once, when I was in the process of withdrawal from my anti-depressants, I was so out of it that I went to a cashpoint, withdrew £50 and walked away without picking it up. I was too mortified to tell anybody, and since it took me several hours to realise it had happened my chances of getting the money back would have been miniscule in any case. It was a problem, but not a disaster. We didn’t go hungry that week.

That’s the kind of memory that makes me hesitate before I start blaming people for letting their children go hungry.

The Guardian blog Breadline Britain, though inevitably drawn from a sample that may not be entirely representative of the nation as a whole, makes sobering reading. Sometimes the anecdotal evidence has a way of staying in your mind and keeping you awake at night:

Magic Breakfast supported school, High Greave infant school in Rotherham, said:  “There are definitely families who can’t afford to buy breakfast. The other day a child came in late for breakfast club and we’d cleared away already. He was inconsolable and sobbed. He hadn’t had any tea the night before – only a pack of crisps. Instances like this show the level of need.”

It costs 22p a day to provide a child’s breakfast. That’s about 10% of the price of a Starbucks latte. As our friends across the pond would say, Do the math.


5 thoughts on “When kids are too hungry to learn

  1. Thank you for writing such a powerful blog to raise awareness of this problem. This is a growing crisis and take all hands on deck at Magic Breakfast, as we’re a small, optimistic charity trying to help the poorest children in the UK. We’re convinced that a way can be found to give every child a healthy breakfast as fuel for learning and help like this is incredibly appreciated. Thank you again!
    Carmel McConnell, Founder, Magic Breakfast

    1. You’re very welcome. I hope the Guardian series and little Martha’s Never Seconds blog will help you get the word out. BTW I’m a librarian at a primary school in South Manchester – affluent on the surface, but you do wonder…

  2. Thank you for such an honest and thought provoking post. It is hard to understand how in a country when some have so much, many children are not getting enough to eat. Thank goodness for people who don’t judge but actually do something about it.

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