The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

Teaching hungry children: the impact of food insecurity

With 4.5 million children in the UK living in poverty, many are going to school hungry. What impact does this have on our pupils, and what foods do schools need to be providing to support their learning?

In November 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme povery and human rights visited the UK. The statement published following his visit makes for a devastating read.

As the world’s fifth largest economy, the report states, the UK’s immense wealth in some areas is juxtaposed with a dramatic growth in the use of food banks, homelessness, loneliness, and isolation. The report points to the political policy of austerity which has led to the gutting of the social safety net, and one-fifth of the population now lives in poverty.

1.5 million are destitute. Various sources are now predicting a child poverty rate as high as 40%.

'It's the skin tone I notice first. Hungry children seem hauntingly pale.' 

Teacher, anonymous

Children living in destitution

According to their latest figures, in April - September 2018, Trussel Trust food banks gave 658,048 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis. This compares with 355,982 three-day emergency food supplies during the same period in 2013.

Food poverty is real and the impact on families is undeniably significant.

There’s more. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report, 'Destitution in the UK' published in June 2018, also makes for grim reading. It found that 365,000 children in the UK were living in destitution at some point during 2017.

Defined as being unable to afford 'the bare essentials that we all need to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean', destitution is as crippling as it sounds.

Let’s just take that in for a moment; 365,000 children were living in destitution at some point in 2017.

Hungry children are less able to cope with the challenges of each day and more likely to struggle emotionally

Can hungry children learn?

Putting aside the political and ideological reasons for this, as educators we have to be aware of the impact that such food poverty and insecurity can have on young learners.

Children need nutrients for their development.

Hunger and malnutrition affect a child’s ability to concentrate, to take in and retain new information and to make progress in their learning. But that’s no surprise.

Calories provide energy. Without energy, how can children thrive in their learning?

How can they make the most of the opportunities in front of them?

In the process of research for this piece, I have heard reports from staff in schools of:

  • children arriving in the morning hungry, some having no means of eating at lunchtime
  • some asking their friends for food
  • others returning after holidays clearly displaying signs of food poverty. 

Several heads reported keeping a stock of food in school so that hungry children can at least eat something.

'There is such an immense sadness around under-nourished children. Maybe it's a sense of psychological resignation.'

Teacher, anonymous

Psychological impact of hunger 

Hunger is not just biological; there is an immense psychological impact too.

Hunger impacts sleep, and tired children are obviously not functioning at their best. Brain development is impeded and worsening mental health may result.

Children may become withdrawn, depressed, angry, and detached from life. They are less able to cope with the challenges of each day and more likely to struggle emotionally.

Food insecurity is devastating.

How quality of food impacts the brain

In a myth-busting peice by the Centre for Educational Nueroscience, the impact of diet on learning is clear. The centre states that 'everyone agrees that in one way or another, diet has an impact on children’s cognitive abilities.' 

There are added complexities, however. 

We know that consuming protein and carbohydrates will lead to the release of neurotransmitters in the brain, which 'are likely to influence academic performance.' But what about the quality of the food consumed?

Research tells us that skipping breakfast can make it harder to complete mentally demanding tasks. It also tells us that artificial colours may have an impact on the behaviour of some children and that being deficient in certain nutrients impacts cognitive development.

Undernutrition carries a heavy cost.

'We offer breakfast to children who arrive hungry, but we are dependent on food donations. I know it's not always the best nutritonally, but at least it's something.'

Teacher, anonymous

Importance of nutrient-rich food

We need to be crystal clear on the most effective ways of supporting children who are experiencing food poverty and undernutrition. Banishing hunger is of course the goal, but if we can do that with nutrient-rich foods, all the better.

Researcher Patrick Holford outlines the essential nutrients that children need to support learning:

  • essential fats
  •  a low-sugar and low-GL diet
  •  vitamins and minerals
  • protein
  • amino acids
  • phospholipids.

Allergies aside, when it comes to breakfast, this means porridges, wholemeal toast and nut butters, egg-based meals, healthy granolas and mueslis, and fruit and vegetable smoothies. There are numerous sources of information and recipes on nutrient-rich meals for children.

While it is undeniable that the poverty in which so many families are existing must be tackled, being mindful of the nutritional deficiencies experienced by children living in poverty is certainly worthy of our attention.

The question is, what more can schools do about it?   

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