A new program in Victorian schools is changing lives by making sure hungry students have the fuel they need to make the most of the school day.
It’s 8.30am at Mahogany Rise Primary School in Frankston. The students shuffle into the breakfast room in that awkward, oblivious manner young kids have around each other, forgoing adult niceties but falling into familiarity once they sit at the table.
This is Breakfast Club. Parent volunteers natter while they butter toast, and a framed slogan – made by the school’s engagement officer and club coordinator, Shannon Jackson – reads: “Eat glitter for breakfast and shine all day”. (Dietary advice you won’t find anywhere else.)
This is just the first school-supplied meal of the day. Later, all Mahogany Rise students will sit at long tables and eat lunch cooked with ingredients from the school’s own kitchen garden and Foodbank Victoria.
“Some children weren’t coming to school with lunch and others just had junk food,” recalls Principal John Culley, who drew inspiration for providing warm school lunches from a sister school in the UK.
“I felt it couldn’t be that difficult to set up – you just need a kitchen and a cook.” John says that since establishing Breakfast Club and the school lunch, they’ve seen more sustained learning throughout the day. Attendance has gone up, too.
“The whole purpose comes from the very simple truth that children can’t learn if they’re hungry.”
Mahogany Rise isn’t the only school to decide students march on their stomachs. Some 30kms away, kids at Cranbourne West Primary School line up outside a canteen window, waiting for breakfast or morning tea served up by a handful of parents and students.
The school launched its breakfast and brunch club long before Foodbank Victoria contacted them to say they were eligible for ongoing food donations, thanks to funding from the Andrews government. “It was a great relief to hear from them, as finding the funding each year was taking a lot of time and energy,” says principal Andrew Bergmeier.
Andrew and the school’s parent and community liaison officer, Debbie Dodd, who coordinates the clubs, speak passionately of the changes in engagement they’ve seen since the introduction of the food clubs.
“The children get an immediate connection with the school; they can see the school cares for them,” Andrew says. “And it’s not just the children but the parents’ attitudes that have changed too. They feel supported also.”
Nowadays the staff and volunteers are so engaged with Breakfast Club, Debbie says she only needs to pop in now and then. “When we started, there was a huge sense of disconnection between families and the school. Now the engagement from the volunteers and the kids infiltrates out to the rest of the school community.”
Most importantly, John adds, the kids aren’t going hungry. “The whole purpose comes from the very simple truth that children can’t learn if they’re hungry.”
It’s difficult to believe that in a country as wealthy as Australia, four million Australians – 18% of the population – experience food insecurity each year. Nearly one million of those going hungry are children. Despite that, this is an issue that often slips through the cracks in public awareness and government policy. Thankfully, the recent success of programs such as Breakfast Club means governments are being forced to take notice.
The Breakfast Club program was first established by Foodbank Victoria – an organisation that has been working to alleviate food insecurity since the Great Depression – to assist schools affected by the Black Saturday fires. After its success grabbed the attention of local MPs, Foodbank worked with then-opposition Victorian Labor ministers to expand the program.
Not everyone in government has been so supportive, however. “The current federal Liberal government tried to pull some funding from Foodbank, but there was such an immediate public backlash, it was reinstated within two days,” says Foodbank Victoria CEO Dave McNamara.
He says Foodbank Victoria supplies the Breakfast Club program with mostly green-rated products from local producers such as milk, oats, muesli, fruit cups, cereals, baked beans, Vegemite, honey and fresh apples. After a conversation with each principal about their needs and issues, storage capacity and order requirements, they suggest an approach and deliver the produce twice a term. Instead of micromanaging, they leave the specifics of distribution up to each school’s coordinators.
“The children get an immediate connection with the school; they can see the school cares for them.”
At Melton Special School, it’s the senior students who have taken on responsibility for management and distribution. The school’s VCAL and Breakfast Club coordinator, Megan Oldfield, recognised that running Breakfast Club like a café would provide a great opportunity for the students – boosting skills, confidence, employability and engagement.
“We have the chefs (who make toast), kitchen hands using the industrial dishwasher, students in charge of OH&S and others cleaning up and getting food ready for the next day,” Megan says. “Next year they’ll manage the ordering too.”
She says it’s wonderful watching kids from different classrooms with various disabilities come together and see the older students caring for the younger. Friendships develop, while maturity, engagement and confidence grow.
“The confidence of one student with a mild intellectual disability has skyrocketed during the program. Because she was responding so positively, we found some work experience for her at a local café and she did so well there they’ve offered her casual work on the weekends. We feel very proud of her – she’s now our second-in-charge!” says Megan.
Likewise, students at Magpie Primary School do the majority of setting up and coordination of their Breakfast Club, though not in any formalised way. “The children come in and just get on with it,” says principal Peter Clifton. “It runs like clockwork and I think it carries over into the rest of the school environment because they feel like they own Breakfast Club and they can own the rest of the school, too.”
The success of the program can be measured both anecdotally and formally, with research conducted by Victoria University attesting to its impact. Happily, the Andrews government has pledged to fund an expansion to 1,000 schools, including high schools. In the run up to the 2018 state election, Daniel Andrews praised the program for changing lives and setting up Victoria to be an “even stronger and fairer state”.
Foodbank Victoria CEO Dave McNamara is delighted with the expansion. “They have also announced they will fund an emergency lunch program, a school holiday backpack program with food for kids in need for the holidays, and trial a family kitchen clubs program,” he says.
“It’s an amazing outcome. The impact of this expansion, from an academic and social perspective, could change the social fabric of Victoria.”