This week Blackpool became the first local authority in Britain to start serving free breakfasts to all primary school children. It follows a similar scheme in London, with teachers calling for more areas to take up the practice. I read about this in an article in the i newspaper, which explained why this was necessary: “Council leaders and teachers said the move was essential to combat growing numbers of children arriving at school hungry and unable to concentrate because their parents could no longer afford to give them breakfast.”
I was somewhat taken aback by this. I know about the problem of children being unable to concentrate in school because they’re hungry – I went to primary school in Madagascar and saw this myself with my poorer classmates. I’m sure it happens in Britain too, but what strikes me is the explanation, the idea that parents can “no longer afford” to feed their children breakfast. I find that very hard to believe.
Last year my wife and I took part in Live Below the Line, a challenge to live on £1 a day each for food for the week. We budgeted to an obsessive degree for each meal, in order to get the most out of our allowance. Lou used a supermarket comparison site to find the absolute cheapest food we could find, and for breakfast we had a choice between bread and jam or porridge. The cheapest bread we found worked out at 2p a slice, with jam at 1p a slice. Porridge made with water was about 5p a bowl but not very appetising. Even made with milk and flavoured with the basic jam, a bowl was single figure pennies.
In other words, I can speak from experience when I say you could give a child breakfast for 5p. It won’t be interesting or particularly nutritious, but it’ll get them through to lunch. My wife and I gave ourselves 10p a day so we could add half a banana each or a cup of instant coffee. So while there are surely some households in this situation, I don’t accept the i‘s explanation that up and down the country, there are thousands of people who can’t find 10p to give their child breakfast.
But obviously children are going to school hungry – apparently around 32%. 9 out of 10 teachers say they’ve seen it. It’s clearly a real problem, so what’s the real reason?
Magic Breakfast are a charity that provides breakfasts in schools, and they provide a fuller list of reasons why::
- Chaotic home life
- Income poverty
- Overcrowded accommodation
- Long term unemployment
- Working parents needing to work unsocial hours, often balancing several jobs and still struggling to make ends meet
- Or simply a lack of nutritional awareness
The first of those is the easiest to imagine – a busy household of people waiting for their turn in the bathroom, losing their homework, rushing about and generally not finding time to sit down and eat anything. In an overcrowded house there may not be space to sit down and have breakfast. Since many adults skip breakfast or get something on the way to work, it just falls off the morning agenda.
Without researching the matter, we can’t be sure what the real reasons are that children aren’t getting fed in the mornings, but we ought to be asking. Feeding children at school solves the problem now, but has consequences. It removes breakfast as the parents responsibility and makes it the government’s job. Are we comfortable with that as a society? In an era of government cuts, is that something we want to add to government spending? Surely feeding your children is the most basic responsibility of parenting – is is really too much to expect?
There are other solutions, depending on what the root of the problem is. If the real issue is time pressure in the mornings for example, then perhaps stronger rights to flexible working for parents is a more important intervention. If it’s just ignorance of the importance of breakfast for children, then maybe it needs to be raised at parent-teacher meetings.
If a child is hungry, they need feeding, so it’s good that free breakfasts are available. But we shouldn’t stop there, and we should resist simplistic explanations and easy answers to what is actually a rather disturbing trend.