11 Mar 2021 Guest Blog: The role school breakfasts can play in our COVID-19 recovery.
This International School Meals Day, Jake Atkinson, Campaigns Officer at Magic Breakfast, discusses how providing a healthy and nutritious school breakfast for all children can play a crucial role in supporting the nation’s recovery from COVID-19.
With schools reopening in England this week, millions of children are returning to face-to-face learning after months of disruption that has caused a serious impact on their education, health and development.
Whilst every child has been affected, a high number of children have faced an additional barrier to their learning: hunger. As a result of the pandemic, food insecurity has risen. In the six months from August 2020 to January 2021, 2.3 million children lived in households experiencing food insecurity. Regardless of if they have been in school or at home, this has meant they likely have not been able to concentrate on learning, have been more easily distracted, agitated, or (conversely) tired and fatigued.
Magic Breakfast has worked throughout the pandemic to continue to support children at risk of hunger. We have supported schools to offer ‘take-home breakfast packs’ for parents to collect from school, and there have even been teachers who have delivered breakfast packs to families in their community. We have also made deliveries direct to families’ doors through our partnership with Amazon. The response has been heartening but also a sad reminder of the hardship families are facing:
“We’ve had so many grateful emails from parents who’ve told us that receiving the packs has been a lifesaver. For some of these children we suspect that what they eat at school is all they eat all day … knowing that the children were receiving breakfast at least was one less thing to worry about” – Teacher from a Magic Breakfast Partner School
“Due to Magic Breakfast, we have been able to provide breakfast parcels to our vulnerable children who were learning remotely. This enabled us to ensure that these families have food for healthy breakfast every day … The delivery by Amazon for free has been invaluable.” – Teacher from a Magic Breakfast Partner School
It is, of course, fantastic that pupils are now back in school and that they will soon once again enjoy all the social benefits of breakfast provision in schools. As the roadmap out of lockdown prompts all of our minds to imagine our COVID-19 recovery, Magic Breakfast believes our call for scaled up government investment in school breakfast provision can help children catch up on the learning they have lost out on during COVID-19. This investment would see all 8700 schools that meet Government eligibility criteria of ‘high levels of deprivation’ be supported to provide children with a free and nutritious breakfast, with that support permanent and sustainable.
So, what role do school breakfasts have in helping children catch up on lost learning? Magic Breakfast’s model of provision has been shown to result in up to 2 months’ additional academic progress over the course of a year. Additionally, a recent report has shown that investing the cost of breakfast provision for one year for pupils completing Key Stage 1 (children aged 6 or 7) has the potential to generate net long-term benefits for the economy in excess of £9,000 per child, largely in the form of increased lifetime earnings.
Our calls for the UK Government to increase investment in school breakfasts follow decisive action from the devolved administrations. Wales has had free school breakfasts since 2004 and political parties in Scotland are pledging to introduce universal free school breakfasts for primary pupils too.
Free School Meals have a long and important history in the UK. Against the backdrop of war, it was first made compulsory for local authorities to provide school meals in 1944, though rationing continued long after the war’s end. However, the very term ‘Free School Meals’ has often been synonymous with school lunches and the Government’s support for school breakfasts falls short of its support for school lunches. Magic Breakfast believes that children at risk of hunger must have access to a healthy breakfast and lunch.
The Government’s National School Breakfast Programme was only introduced in 2018, and currently supports just 7% of schools eligible for need based on high levels of deprivation. One would argue against the backdrop of a different economic crisis like we face today that there is an opportunity to build on this and bring the commitment to free school breakfasts up to par with the commitment to free school lunches.
As we celebrate International School Meals Day and how nutritious school meals underpin children’s health, wellbeing and learning, we should emphasise their role in our recovery from COVID-19 and continue to advocate for their investment.
Jake Atkinson is Campaigns Officer at Magic Breakfast, a national charity with the vision of having no child too hungry to learn in the UK. The charity supports its partner schools by providing healthy breakfast food and expert support to help identify and reach pupils at risk of hunger.