Erin Harris sees what a difference a few carrot sticks, cheese and crackers, or a hot breakfast served at school makes in the day of a student — every single day.
She’s a teacher at Salisbury Morse Place School in River East School Division where healthy snacks are available to all students from kindergarten to Grade 8 Monday to Friday.
It’s one of many schools offering a “breakfast cart” style snack program, offering fruits such as oranges and bananas, house-made “trail mixes” of cereals, raisins and popcorn, hard boiled eggs, and yogurt parfaits.
It’s made an enormous difference in how kids behave and their ability to concentrate and settle down in the classroom, says Harris, who recalls the days when she’d quietly bring food herself to school, worried about students who would arrive having eaten no breakfast and pressing through their whole school day on an empty stomach.
“The impact is huge,” she says. “Negative behaviour lessens when kids aren’t hungry.
“We serve between 90 and 150 kids a day and it runs Monday to Friday, and the kids love it. We have kids who use it right through kindergarten to Grade 8.”
The problem of hunger in their school isn’t isolated to children of families with low incomes, Harris says.
“Sometimes it’s just because parents leave for work really early, or they’re working shift work, and it’s a matter of trying to get kids out the door and fed and to school on time and one of those things falling through the cracks.”
Today Salisbury Morse Place is one of nearly 200 schools running similar programs across Manitoba. These school snack — or breakfast or lunch programs — are supported by the Child Nutrition Council, a charitable organization that since 2001 has helped provide over $2 million to feed upwards of 17,000 students healthy snacks, breakfasts or healthy, balanced light meals every day.
About 45 per cent of the participating schools are in rural Manitoba, with another 15 per cent in northern Manitoba and the other 40 per cent Winnipeg based, says Viola Prowse, the CNCM’s executive director who credits the schools themselves for the successes with these programs.
“It takes a lot of energy and creativity to run all these programs,” says Prowse. “The success of this program has been based on every school developing it in the way that it can. There are amazing things that people are doing.”
Norma Alberg, the chairperson for the program, says these nutrition programs have evolved with understanding of the role good nutrition plays not only in academic life but in all aspects of health.
“People are looking differently at the importance of nutrition in school now, and there are any number of reasons why a child is hungry,” said Alberg. Rural students for example can be hungry after a long bus ride to school regardless of whether they ate breakfast.
“It’s a support to the children. We’re not giving them breakfast that the family didn’t give them at home. It’s just that they’re ready for more.
“Or it may be their age, and they’re in a growth spurt.”
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School principals say these programs have not only settled kids down to study and achieve better grades, they have fostered a unique school culture. Kids in schools offering these programs are given a strong message that their school really cares about them, said Kevin Clace, school principal at Morris School. This program has made a big difference in the relationship between students and staff, he said.
“We’ve been able to use that program to build such strong positive relationships with the kids. I think that one of the biggest things for me is knowing that every kid who walks through the doors of this building has the opportunity to start the day right, not just with breakfast, but with quality positive adult contact.”
CNCM funding supports a variety of programs, including those that involve older students in developing, preparing and cooking the foods themselves.
All nutrition programs receiving CNCM funding become part of what’s called the “Cram network.” Cram isn’t an acronym but merely a statement about the bursting energy of students and the resourcefulness of schools and community volunteers who run these programs.
The program is supported through partnerships that include the University of Manitoba’s human ecology students who volunteer and create resources and the culinary arts students from Red River College who design recipes.
Funding support is provided through a variety of sources including the province of Manitoba, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and The Winnipeg Foundation whose Nourishing Potential program supports after-school food programs. Other funders and partners include Breakfast Clubs of Canada, Dairy Farmers of Manitoba, Dietitians of Canada, Manitoba School Boards Association, and the Canadian Child and Youth Nutrition Program Network.
Manitoba’s new budget includes an additional $450,000 for child nutrition programming in low-income schools across Manitoba.
To learn more log on to: http://childnutritioncouncil.com.
CORRECTION, March 27, 2014: The print version of this article incorrectly described Salisbury Morse Place School as a Kindergarten to Grade 9 school. We regret the error.