food poverty

The puzzle of free school breakfasts

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.


  1. Really interesting post thanks, and I’m relieved to see something like this out there! I was similarly shocked reading the story, and that the answer was seen as making breakfast the state’s responsibility. I just wanted to add a few thoughts on one small thing I disagree with, and that’s your assessment that breakfast can be provided for 5p per child. That doesn’t take into account the cost of electric, toaster, microwave, cooker or possibly even a fridge to stop your bread going off (which might be very necessary if your flat is heated centrally in the block of flats, and you have no way to turn it down). Families can often stop feeding the electric meter as one of the fastest ways to save money when they’re struggling, and a minority of families may well live in homes that don’t have any of the above equipment. They may be unaware that things like freecycle exist which could help them access something like a toaster. I still 100% agree that the solutions are different, and that the vast majority of people could still afford to give their kids breakfast, but wanted to highlight the above for further pondering. Cheers, and love the blog!

    1. Sure, 5p is an absolute minimum and I wouldn’t wish a 5p breakfast on anyone – that’s untoasted bread and the most fruitless jam you’ll ever taste. I just mentioned how cheap it could be, if you were committed to providing your kids with breakfast and really had no money.

      I wonder if our expectations of breakfast are part of the problem. Breakfast cereals are very overpriced, in my opinion. If your children are expecting cereal, I can see how parents could feel that they can’t afford breakfast.

  2. I offer you a hearty bravo from “across the pond” on this experience. It is appalling at the gap of economic status in places such as great Britain and America. Too often people assume everyone lives like them when the truth is many bellies growl at all times of the day.

    I just returned from a mission trip to Belize and worked with a lady who provides hot meals to the school children in her village. The government schools do not provide a hot lunch, likely due to the cost. If not for this kind ladies exercise of faith in supplying this need, these children might have a meager lunc if any.

  3. I hear the same over here in Germany, but here even on social welfare there is ample money for food. Actually social welfare is still so generous that people with children have more money on social welfare than some others who are working full time only in low wage jobs. There are so many benefit programs, family support programs. It begins with 300 Euro per child on top of the money for the parents, plus money for rent, heating, running costs, school extras etc. You can easily – very, very easily – feed and cloth a child for 300 Euro per month. We spend much less! And without pain. It seems more a problem with priorities, with budgeting, perhaps with discipline. Oh – and our kids quite often get porridge (with milk) for breakfast. Not because of poverty, but because they like it. It’s healthy and costs next to nothing. But I admit it would be a bit dull, day in, day out. But merely dull – not dangerous.

  4. Can’t stop thinking that it is rather difficult for me to imagine that parents don’t give their kids something to eat. Perhaps the exception would be that someone is seriously ill, physically or mentally. Probably such parents then need some help from the side of youth offices, social workers – or medical assistance, if required.

    1. It’s worrying, isn’t it? You expect it to happen occasionally, but a third of children regularly being sent to school without being fed? Something’s gone rather wrong there.

      1. Jeremy, I suspect that due to their circumstances and associated lack of nutritional awareness, they think it is such a realtively small meal that it is insignificant and not worth the bother, so, with that mindset, it easily becomes habit.

        Since all of us here have resisted the simple explantion and easy answers, why do you think the councils leaders and teachers have given or accepted them. I suppose they want to improve the education issues (from their interest), but do not want to get politically involved? What is your opinion?

        1. They are doing the right thing, in that if children are hungry, you feed them. I’d do the same if I had a school where children were turning up unfed. But it’s not enough to just feed them and take responsibility for giving children breakfast. It ought to be a temporary intervention, ideally.

          It’s important that it is explained to parents that breakfast is their job, whether that’s a letter, or whether it’s brought up in parent teacher evenings. There will be some households where it won’t happen regardless, but they ought to be very much the exception. I’d also make sure that children knew the importance of breakfast and how to make it for themselves.

          But I’m not in education. I don’t know what the right thing is to do. As the title of the post suggests, I’m writing about this because it puzzles me, not because I have a solution up my sleeve.

  5. I think when Magic Breakfast refer to ‘chaotic families’ they don’t just mean the normal chaos of family life, but dysfunctional ones with unstable parents who behave in a wildly inconsistent manner with their children. These are the families the government see as major problem and are focusing support on.

    Otherwise I agree strongly with your article. Giving children breakfast is a parental responsibility, not the state’s. The first resort should not be to provide breakfast in schools but try to tackle the reasons why children aren’t feed in the morning. As has been said while it may be no fun, you can feed children basics on a very tight budget.

    1. Yes, I think ‘chaos’ probably means a whole lot of things, and I had friends who’s parents would fit the bill, who got up at midday and left their kids to fend for themselves because they’d been drinking the night before. That sort of thing. Really difficult to care for children in those sorts of families.

  6. ‘Something’s gone rather wrong there’ – Yes, I think the joy of living, sharing and loving together as a family is a significant part. The materialistic world has some part to play in some ways but how will we improve? Perhaps a steady state economy can help?

  7. A great reminder for me of breakfast programs I see in the developing world where the community takes turns in cooking meals for the children each day from food they have grown together to give their children a better education. I have been lucky to see this in Africa, Asia, Latin America and sure it happens in other places but not so sure it happens in the developed world so much on a holistic community level and involvement front. One other example to add was in Ecuador where the government supplied vitamine A gruel and biscuits to each child in the entire country… Thanks for a great post Jeremy.

  8. One of the reasons could be ‘time’ poverty in the morning. In the ‘good old days’ when I was a child my parents got out of bed at 5.00am to milk cows. By 7.00am my mother had cooked my breakfast and prepared my sandwich lunch, while my father had caught and saddled my horse. I then had to ride 6 miles to school. Not surprisingly, farming communities worked from sunrise to sunset. Now the parents and children can watch TV or communicate on digital media until late at night, which means they rise late with no time to prepare breakfast. It is about how people choose to use their time.

  9. You and Lou are sensible, thoughtful people. You’ve made a budget of £1 each per day, thought about how to spend it wisely, and made a plan. It’s easy to over-estimate how common these skills are. Many (not all, probably not even a majority, but still many) people on low incomes lack the skills to do this. If they are employed, they may lack or feel that they lack the time, especially if it’s physically demanding work and/or they have multiple young children. It’s easier to spend the money when you have it, go hungry for a day or two just before payday.

    1. I agree. But can we find deeper answers to the causes for this in the way our society works (rather than looking at the individual’s chaos), and then be more motivated towards any significant changes?

  10. Stefan, apparently over here too those on benefits often get more than those working full time in low paid jobs. So we are told by the right wing media, and even the Government,yet a third of children go hungry to school? Something doesn’t add up there. Food banks for low income families are being used widely now,which is brilliant,but I agree that education needs to be a part of that – ways of spending more efficiently,ways of using food more efficiently.

  11. Jeremy. I find it an interesting concept that in your ‘What We Learned This Week’ we are looking at the prospect of a steady state economy with the book ‘Enough is Enough’, yet we are also discussing here that there are so many for whom there is not enough, and more specifically, why that may be so. I have cast my net twice to see if anyone will find some connection, but no response. Is my mind going astray or can you see the possibility of some connection with the ideas that a steady state economy may have an unexpected impact on these families. I think there may be some connection. Am I standing out on a limb on this?

    1. It’s hard to say. We’ll have disadvantaged families and chaotic lives in a growth and a postgrowth world, I’m afraid. There are arguments on both sides. On the one hand, a postgrowth economy wouldn’t be getting bigger and generating a surplus that can be distributed. That makes it harder to end poverty in theory, but then it hasn’t worked in a growth economy either.
      On the other hand, a steady state economy ought to be more stable than our current one. The economy we have at the moment is subject to boom and bust business cycles, and with every recession people lose their jobs and end up in poverty. If the economy didn’t drop a large segment of society into poverty every ten years or so, that would certainly help.

      1. Thank you. Yes, and I feel that perhaps in a steady state economy, the less fear there is from both job loss and large differences in incomes, even in the same neighbourhoods, there may be less influencing upon one another of this insatiable desire to be looking elsewhere for more, instead of making better use of what we have. I think the connections can be more subtle than we those readily seen.

  12. I believe I am well placed to comment on this issue as my mother is a teaching assistant in a deprived secondary school (the secondary school I attended as a child and worked in for 2 years after university) and she runs the Breakfast Club where the children entitled to free school meals are also entitled to a free breakfast. She sits and chats to these children every morning and knows exactly why the majority of them get their breakfast from the government. She tells me that in her particular school, where the catchment area borders 3 council estates; that the problem seems to be a result of low-income families, the majority dependant on state benefits, living chaotic lifestyles, often drug and alcohol dependancy is common, with parents having neither the ability or wherewithal to know or even want to bring up their kids properly. She sees that many parents simply do not care. She will very often see that parents have given their child £5 to go and get themselves some food from the shop, as a result these children will pop into Lidl and stock up on packets of crisps, biscuits and chocolate and then come into school, loaded up with junk food, eating a packet of biscuits for breakfast; those entitled to free school meals will then go and get themselves the bacon sandwich to which they are entitled.

    This is only the perspective from one school and I cannot comment on others as I am sure not all are the same however, parental neglect seems to be a big issue here.

    1. So, are the free breakfasts the result of altruism or is it cheaper to provide breakfast in the hope of getting better educational results and less problem adults? Or what?

  13. Thanks for the question. The purpose of the free school breakfasts is purely for the schools to get kids concentrating better in class which is a major issue and improve any unruley behaviour which may be as a result of them being jacked up on sugar and additives before their school day has even begun. The schools are governed by their targets, they need a certain percentage of kids scoring at least 5 A*-C’s at GCSE each summer in order to remain competitive with neighbouring schools and maintain it’s reputation, so in a school full of unruley kids, where the school receives loads of additional funding from central government, it makes sense to allocate some of that funding to getting a bit of semi-nutritious food into those that may not have access to it in the hope they might get something out of a few more kids in class.

    1. I can see how it makes sense from the school’s point of view. I’d be inclined to do the same thing if I were a head teacher.

      It’s interesting that children come to school with money instead of breakfast. It shows that it’s a matter of understanding rather than income. If you can give kids £5 for junk food, you can clearly afford breakfast. It’s not happening for other reasons. That’s what I’m most concerned about really, that we don’t jump to hasty conclusions about why this happens.

      Thanks for your contribution Jodie, it’s useful to hear some actual examples.

      1. As you said in your original post, I’d be very surprised if income was a major obstacle in feeding their kids breakfast in many of the children who turn up to school hungry in more deprived areas; very often I think you will find in these households no food in the fridge but always a steady stream of cigarettes and alcohol for the parent(s). My mum has told me that the kids tell her that their parent at home is always still in bed when they get up to go to school; if you have no job to get up for and aren’t too concerned about being there to see your kids off to school then you’re going to have no reason to get up early to see that they have a belly full of cereal are you? Only yesterday she told me about a teenage girl who had told her there was never any food in the cupboards at home and that her mum gives her money each day to buy her food for the day from the supermarket.

  14. The reality of the lifes of scores of children’s are a million miles from the reality of our lives. Of course with careful budgeting a breakfast is possible . However the skills involved in budgeting , skills that most of us take for granted are many and complex . They involve planning and forethought and prioritizing and the ability to delay gratification.These are skills we learnt as children and we pass them on to our children when they are still small. But if you were brought up by a dysfunctional family its hard to acquire the skills you now need to parent well. Many families are seriously dysfunctional with parents who are addicted to substances or just unable to cope with the demands of living.They love their children but lack the skills to enforce healthy lifestyles on their children particularly when their own life styles are so catastrophically unhealthy. Big issues with no easy answers but as the grown ups debate the solutions well done to the schools who feed hungry children.

    1. This is absolutely true; it’s a sad but necessary band aid in our society. Children are even using after school clubs now to delay going home to their dysfunctional household.

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