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Pathways-ED: The crusty issue of hungry students


We used to talk about a hunger for learning and a thirst for knowledge. Now it seems we mostly just talk about hunger.

Children cannot learn if they are hungry – we have heard this shibboleth for a long time now but it has never acquired a status of being any more than an assumption. Now along comes a research study that finds that when the assumption is tested it is found to be less than robust. Or put more strongly, there is no evidence that children who are hungry cannot learn.

If, indeed, you believe that learning is not possible if you are hungry then you dismiss learning as being out of reach for quite a proportion of the world.

On the other hand if by “hungry” you mean “didn’t have breakfast” then that is a different matter. I know of middle class young people who do not have breakfast – they learn and they survive in schools.

Now we need to be clear that the multiple factors of disadvantage that characterise poverty will certainly act against a child’s learning. Poor health, bad nutrition, damp housing, over-crowded living conditions, low or no regular family income, all these factors will impact on a child. But these go far beyond being hungry.

A lot of education systems do something about this systemic issue.

In Finland all students of all ages in the education system get not only free health care but also a free lunch. They are about the same size as we are and they spend about the same amount on education. We envy their levels of achievement so anything they do should be thought about carefully.

In the USA most states have a free lunch programme that is means tested one way or another. Of course that will raise cries of stigmatisation through identification of those with need but those arguments are generally coming from well-fed adults.

Similarly, in the UK, children qualify for school lunches and in fact the school lunches and the “dinner ladies” have long been a tradition. A positive relationship with a dinner lady really helped one of my sons settle into an English school. But it is also in the UK that arguments have broken out about the quality of the school lunches provided by parents.

Jamie Oliver even has a “school lunch manifesto”.

“As many of you know I released my new school food manifesto this week outlining my concerns for school food in England today and the actions I think need to be taken by government to ensure our kids continue to get the great all round food education they need to feed themselves better in the future and to help reduce the crippling rise in obesity. I have been overwhelmed and delighted by the support I have received from you guys out there for the manifesto. So thanks and big love to my fellow school food campaigners, school caterers, the press and the general public…. the fight continues…..”  All good stuff for the ratings.

A Chicago principal had her own campaign and banned lunches being brought to school by students on the grounds that they were of such poor quality. Students either bought their lunch at the school dining facility or they went hungry. It is reported that quite a few choose hunger over the school-provided option. Of course some of those students might simply have no money and this is the critical issue. If providing a nourishing meal for a young person (it could be breakfast or lunch) is beyond a family then we all own an issue that needs to be addressed.

When I went to school (fade in the violin music) we received a plethora of health checks and we received a half-pint bottle of milk each day. Such events were sometimes enjoyed and sometimes endured.

One thing New Zealand is good at is producing food. Might not the government consider a social investment contract with food producers to supply/provide a small percentage of their production for use in schools for all New Zealanders. This would apply to the basics mostly – surely a baker could put one out of every hundred loaves aside for the schools. It might well be possible, would take a little organising and would achieve what is needed.

I recall when I went to school that we would sit under the trees to eat our lunch. We had lunch boxes but many didn’t. One group of kids brought their jam sandwiches to school wrapped in newspaper. Having written that I am wondering whether that really happened or am I confusing my own experiences with those of Kezia in Mansfield’s The Dolls House.

It’s  funny how memory can sometimes confuse fact and fiction but that also happens in many education discussions, none more so than this school hunger / breakfast / lunch business.


Published inEarly Childhood EducationPrimary Education

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