The case for school lunches
We have 75,000 thousand children living in the poorest of South Australian households. The majority are school aged, and they would all benefit from a school lunch program being introduced at their school.
For decades we have been reading headlines telling us that our education system is failing too many children and that our international education rankings are falling behind other countries. Public debate on the shortfalls in our education system are then predictably followed by pointing the finger at a range of popular reasons for the demise. They range from entrenched ideological camps about class size, curriculum content and teacher training to the amount of classroom instruction time being made available to each student.
However, one of the rarely discussed possibilities for education shortfalls might have something to do with increased numbers of South Australian children going to school hungry. Or in some cases not going to school at all simply because they have no food to keep them going throughout the day.
We’re all too familiar with the Betty White hangry memes, but for thousands of children being “hangry” is an everyday reality, seriously impacting on their short and long-term health and wellbeing, and on their education.
Given it is now widely understood that early setbacks in learning can have lifelong and cumulative impacts on a range of economic, health and social outcomes, the impact of food insecurity on the large numbers of children in South Australia we know are regularly going hungry, needs much closer examination.
Children who are hungry are distracted, disruptive and disengaged. They are therefore less able to concentrate or regulate their emotions, and are very unlikely to be in a state that enables them to be receptive to learning. Whilst frequently described as naughty, lazy, or immature, it is less common to consider these children may just be hungry! And not in a “mum I am starving” kind of way, but in a chronically regularly hungry way.
We don’t look enough at the relationship between hunger and behaviour and may need to admit that we’ve been overlooking an obvious solution: food. For the child who has forgotten lunch, or left it on the kitchen bench, telling teachers and office staff they’re hungry is no big deal. But for those for whom having no lunch to bring to school is a regular occurrence, and for whom not eating breakfast is the norm, the embarrassment and shame they feel at having to face this reality yet again has stopped them from asking for the “emergency “sandwich or muesli bar they need — not because they’re no longer hungry, but because they’ve become resigned to their reality of always being in a hungry state.
The benefits of feeding hungry children across our community to improve education outcomes and address behaviour issues at school, have not been adequately explored in South Australia. Although school lunches have been a feature of school life for many years in countries as diverse as Sweden, the United Kingdom, and India, they have not been seriously considered as an option here.
This may because we are in denial about the number of South Australian children who are regularly experiencing hunger across our community. It may also be because we don’t want to prioritise government funding specifically for this purpose in the way other countries have chosen to do.
In New Zealand, for example, free school meal programs have been trialled at schools from low-SES areas with measurable success. By supplying healthy school lunches on a universal basis to these schools, the risk of stigma associated with the program has been minimised. This has helped to protect students who live with food insecurity from experiencing any shame for not coming to school with their own lunch. They can focus on learning instead.
Closer to home the Tasmanian School Canteen Association conducted a trial provision of free hot lunches at three government schools. The trial showed that attendance rates and behaviours improved at the school, with fewer parents keeping their kids home because they couldn’t afford to send them to school with lunch. The trial has been expanded to include a further 15 schools in 2023.
Countries across the world are recognising the improvement in education outcomes that feeding children during the hours they are at school can deliver. Up until now Australia has been an outlier. There are some individual primary schools, however, notably in Queensland and New South Wales, that have begun to universally feed their students during the school day. As a result, they too have seen noticeable improvements in both behaviour and attendance.
If we are genuinely committed to creating an excellent education system that supports all children to learn, then we must take our lead from those countries around the world who are already reaping the benefits of feeding hungry children while they’re at school. To not do so is to add to their educational disadvantage and accept that while they remain hungry, they will remain disengaged from their learning.
I can remember a time before Education and schools thought it was their responsibility to support breakfast programs. This change in attitude came when the evidence pointed to the irrefutable relationship that exists between poor health and good education outcomes. Now with both Foodbank and Kickstart for Kids being publicly funded to maintain and expand breakfast programs around the state, it is impossible to deny the benefits that such an approach has. But no matter how good breakfast is, the rest of the school day is long and difficult if you have no lunch — and in some cases will be going home to no dinner too.
If we are seeking evidence that the introduction of a school lunch program is needed, we can look to Foodbank. Their experience shows that 57% of their clients’ children go without food for a whole day at least once a week.
We can also listen to teachers in our most disadvantaged schools who regularly report that they are providing large numbers of children with lunch, as well as sending them home with food for dinner.
Introducing a school lunch program in South Australia will undoubtedly throw up myriad critics and reasons as to why we shouldn’t invest public money in this way. Many will see providing a school lunch as a responsibility that sits squarely with parents. But surely the reverse view is equally true. How can we not spend public money on supporting hungry children to have a fighting chance at learning?