Why learners need food before and during school
A lot of attention is paid to the tragic fact that many children attend school on empty stomachs, don’t bring a packed lunch to school or buy ‘junk’ food from school tuck shops. Why the hype?
The reasons are simple. First, children’s nutritional needs are very different from those of adults. They have smaller stomachs so cannot eat the same quantity of food at mealtimes than adults do. Yet they are growing: they are building bones, muscles and brains. Most adults eat to merely maintain their bodies and supply their brains with the glucose it needs to function well. Grade 5 learners will have doubled their size since Grade R. This means that they need a lot of good food every day.
Apart from the biological demands of growth, we are all aware that learners who are hungry are not able to focus or sustain attention in class. Many show behavioural difficulties and can be discipline problems. There are research studies showing that nutrition is critical for a child’s brain and those who have a good breakfast tend to function better during the school day than those who have nothing to eat or who have to cope with sub-standard food.
Lack of finances are a problem faced by parents but there is also a question of choosing healthier foods. For example, a young boy admitted to a health professional that his usual breakfast consisted of a slice of white bread spread with margarine and sprinkled with sugar. This is not nutritious. With this breakfast, his blood sugar will spike, leaving him on an immediate ‘sugar high’. Remember that white bread is very quickly digested into glucose. In some children this leads to hyperactivity and impulsiveness, so they can’t settle down and learn in school. Poor quality margarines also contain trans fatty acids which don’t lubricate the brain in the way healthier fats do. Substitute the white bread for a low GI seeded bread and spread it with peanut butter and the same child will have fuel to last him until mid-morning.
Break time at school is the time for another nutritional top-up and children again benefit from a healthy snack. As fuel for the body, sugar is useless. The ‘sugar high’ that follows a sugar loaded meal or snack wears off very quickly, leaving the body craving more sugar. The child then has to either feel cranky and miserable or refuelling with more sugar for another high. Not a good situation!
Quite a few schools these days are checking up on children’s lunch boxes and even banning unhealthy and nutritionally ‘empty’ foods. Instead, parents are given suggestions for what snacks to provide. This practice is to be cheered on as it is not only benefitting the children’s body and brain health but it is teaching children about healthier lifestyles and diet.
So be critical of what your learners (and own family) are eating for the sake of optimal development and school performance.