Giving students a nutritious meal at the beginning of the day improves their academic performance and attendance, the first large-scale study of school breakfast programs done in Canada shows.
The two-year study by the Toronto District School Board captures the simple fact that educators say they always instinctively knew but couldn't substantiate with figures: a hungry child just isn't primed for learning.
The TDSB project followed 6,000 Toronto students in four middle schools and three secondary schools in 2008 and 2009 where a free breakfast was offered before or during first period – and the results are positive. About 78 per cent of high school students who ate the breakfast on most days were on track for graduation, compared with 61 per cent of students who ate it only on a few days or not at all. Similar data have been collected in the United States, but this is the first Canadian study of its kind.
"A child isn't going to be focused on that math problem if he's hungry," said Catherine Parsonage, the executive director and CEO of the Toronto Foundation for Student Success, the board's charitable arm. "We know that as parents ... that's why we chase our kids to eat breakfast. And kids in priority neighbourhoods need that extra bit of help."
The TDSB launched the program in 2008 in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood schools after an internal student census showed that 51 per cent of elementary students and 68 per cent of high school students came to school without eating breakfast. The neighbourhood has elevated rates of poverty, immigration and violence as well as several health challenges such as diabetes and poor nutrition.
After participating in the program, 82 per cent of the children said having the breakfast kept them from feeling hungry, while 70 per cent said it boosted their energy levels and 66 per cent said it helped the family save money.
At Emery Collegiate, one of the host schools, students quickly cleaned out the supply of apples, juice boxes, string cheese and yogurt as soon as it was brought into the classroom.
Grade 11 student Aneet Sahota says she's less likely to stroll over to the McDonald's across the street from her school for lunch now that she takes part in the breakfast program. "Before I used to go all the time, almost every day," she said. "Now, I go maybe once or twice, so I'm eating healthier and my grades have also gone up from 80s to low 90s."
Participation rates were high at all schools involved, although it generally decreased for older students, and was popular with students irrespective of their family's income.
"I'm not as hungry and I focus way more, especially in biology," Grade 12 student Abubakar Sultan said. "Instead of everything the teachers says sounding like blah, blah, blah, it now actually makes sense."
The study showed students who ate the morning meals were 3 per cent less likely to be suspended and more likely to attend school regularly. Meanwhile, Grade 7 and 8 students who ate breakfast at school on most days achieved or exceeded provincial reading standards by a rate 10 per cent higher than those who did not have breakfast.
The TDSB's program costs $1 to feed a student every day, 75 cents of which comes from fundraising. Although the need is there, it's unlikely this breakfast program will be expanded to other priority neighbourhoods, Ms. Parsonage said, unless more funding comes through.
Canada is one of few developed nations that does not have a national child breakfast program.
"The results are so clear and our safety monitors say student conflicts are down," said Emery vice-principal Monday Gala. "It absolutely makes sense for all levels of political governments to be involved in making this happen for all students."
The most important meal of the day
First Canadian study to look at the link between breakfast and learning confirms good nutrition leads to better academic performance
61 per cent of students who ate breakfast on most days at school achieved or exceeded provincial standards in reading, compared to 50 per cent who never had the morning meals, or ate only a few days a week.
Students who ate the morning meals on most days were 64 per cent more likely to achieve an "excellent" or "good" notation on their report cards for homework completion, compared to 55 per cent who ate them only on a few days or never.
28 per cent of students who had breakfast on most days were at-risk in Science compared to 44 per cent who never had the meals or did only a few days a week.
Three-quarters of students who ate morning meals on most days of a week rated their heath as excellent compared to 58 per cent of whose who never ate them or ate only a few times a week.
82 per cent said the breakfasts kept them from feeling hungry during the school day and 74 per cent said they improved their health.
Students who ate morning meals on most days were 72 per cent more likely to achieve an "excellent" or "good" notation on their report cards for class participation compared to 60 per cent who never ate or ate on only a few days.