Robin Lustig writes in today’s Guardian about the truly shocking amount of sugar in many breakfast cereals routinely consumed by children. This includes apparently healthy products: Raisin Bran, for example, contains raisins dipped into sugar solution because, apparently, the originals aren’t sweet enough to tempt little palates.
The physical outcomes of over-consumption of sugar are depressingly well known. Teachers will also be familiar with the effect fast-release carbs have on children’s concentration and behaviour. Just when the hard work of Literacy Hour kicks in, they’re heading for a sugar crash that leaves them grumpy and unfocussed.
Middle class parents will resolve to do better, only to cave in to pester power as the punishing routine of early starts and frayed tempers that characterises the working week begins to bite. Some schools will send home letters reminding parents that unhealthy additions to lunch boxes will be removed and perpetrators named and shamed. I sometimes wonder if the awarders of the Healthy Schools Initiative’s coveted certificates that deck reception areas are aware of the amount of chocolate and cake being guzzled out of sight in the staff room. It is surprising how many people pass through a busy primary school on visits, exchange schemes and placements, and feel the need to show their appreciation when they leave by donating sugary treats.
Worse still, many kids are coming to school on an empty stomach; sometimes yesterday’s school dinner was the last meal they had. Stories abound of teachers providing food out of their own pockets; I’m sure the main motive is altruism but it’s also true that one undernourished child can disrupt an entire class, dragging down those all-important SATS results.
Poverty, chaotic lifestyles, homelessness leading to the lack of a place to even prepare breakfast, can all have a disastrous impact on kids’ nutrition. And the remedy is simple – schools should be properly funded to provide a nutritious breakfast for every child. It won’t happen; the modest proposal to extend free school meals to all infant school children was controversial enough. Governments fear the wrath of the tabloid press too much to risk anybody apparently being offered something by the state that they don’t “deserve” or could in theory provide for their children themselves. But the demand is clearly there, and growing. Magic Breakfast are overwhelmed by requests for help. Universal breakfast provision would remove the stigma that still puts off many needy parents from requesting help, it would give children the chance to start the day in a structured and secure environment and allow schools to have control over the quality of the food the kids were eating.
Meanwhile, we have reached such a nadir in our social provision for the health of young children that those consuming several teaspoons of sugar at the breakfast table can be regarded as the lucky ones.