Dr Alanna Sincovich, Senior Research Officer Telethon Kids Institute, Executive Committee PHAA SA Branch; Ms Mary Brushe, Study Manager Telethon Kids Institute, Vice President PHAA SA Branch.
In the recently launched 2023-24 South Australian State Budget, the Premier announced an additional $6.5 million of funding to expand the state’s School Breakfast Programs, providing over one million additional free breakfast meals to students in government schools over the next four years.
When students skip breakfast, they are less engaged at school.
And one in three South Australian school students sometimes or often skip breakfast.
We can’t ask our kids to fill their minds on an empty stomach. pic.twitter.com/r95mqIKaUE
— Peter Malinauskas (@PMalinauskasMP) June 5, 2023
This is a welcome investment that is aligned with local evidence of the challenges families, children, and young people face around food insecurity amid the ongoing cost of living crisis. Nationally, the Foodbank Hunger Report 2022 highlighted that almost one quarter of Australian households are struggling financially to access food, with even higher prevalence for families with children. Further, our Telethon Kids Institute research showed that, among more than 70,000 school-aged students in South Australia, over a third regularly skip breakfast, and almost 1 in 10 skip breakfast every day.
We’ve also demonstrated the important link between breakfast consumption and students’ ability to engage with their learning, teachers, and peers at school. These findings, in addition to international evidence demonstrating the negative consequences of skipping breakfast for other cognitive, health, and wellbeing outcomes, highlights the need to ensure children and young people don’t go hungry in the morning.
It’s clear that there remain significant opportunities to ensure Australian families, children, and young people have access to adequate nutrition; a basic human right. School Breakfast Programs have been a popular strategy in the fight against poverty in the United States and United Kingdom for decades. Australia has adopted the same intervention model more recently, with not-for-profit organisation, Foodbank, the primary provider of free breakfast meals nationally. Programs are currently targeted at government schools located in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. While increased investment in the South Australian School Breakfast program is an important first step to ensuring students can access free daily breakfast, the focus must now turn to ensuring the programs promote attendance and equitable access, so that those children and young people most in need can benefit.
Wonderful to have the Premier launch @telethonkids Adelaide & chat about the new $6.5 million investment in the state’s School Breakfast Program 🍎
Looking forward to next steps of this research to ensure we get best bang for buck & funds benefit children who need it most. https://t.co/thRJBVxgr7
— Alanna Sincovich, PhD (@AlannaSincovich) June 20, 2023
Ensuring focus on equitable access
While research in Australia is limited, international evidence shows that program provision alone isn’t enough, and encouraging students to attend to receive a free breakfast before school is a key challenge. This is particularly the case for children and young people living in socioeconomically disadvantaged households and communities. Program and family characteristics have been shown to be important determinants in whether children take part in School Breakfast Programs. For example, providing free breakfast to students in a targeted way (e.g., only students facing socioeconomic disadvantage are eligible), rather than through a universal approach, creates stigma and presents a barrier to children attending. Similarly, programs requiring students to come to school before school starts may be difficult for some children. Lack of time due to family structures (e.g., single parents, two working parents) or the distance children have to travel to school may mean getting to school early to access free breakfast is a challenge. Barriers such as these, which are likely to disproportionately affect students experiencing food insecurity and socioeconomic disadvantage, must be addressed to ensure equitable access.
Next steps for research and advocacy
With increased funding and School Breakfast Programs in the spotlight in South Australia, it’s more important than ever to investigate how these programs can be delivered in a way that reduces barriers and improves access to free breakfast among children experiencing food insecurity and socioeconomic disadvantage. To ensure funds are used effectively and equitably, there is a need to better understand the views of communities, families, and students themselves on how to address barriers to access and promote participation. This will ensure investments lead to meaningful outcomes and will help to advocate for sustained funding and support.
As the cost of living continues to rise, supports for our most vulnerable families are critical. While increased investment in the School Breakfast Program, along with other cost of living support strategies, will provide welcome relief, advocacy for additional supports is needed to stop families, children, and young people across South Australia going hungry. For example, there are opportunities to explore provision of food relief for the state’s youngest children who aren’t yet at school. Further, food relief supports for school-aged children could look beyond breakfast, to provision of school lunches. Again, such an intervention model has been implemented in other countries for decades, and other states including Tasmania and Western Australia are exploring and trialling such programs. Importantly, our advocacy must be driven by the needs and perspectives of communities and consumers. Their voices are critical to understanding how to identify challenges, maximise benefits, and ultimately optimise any intervention’s success.
We applaud the South Australian Government for investing in School Breakfast Programs as a strategy in the fight against food insecurity. We advocate to ensure community voice is embedded within these strategies and that they are implemented through an equity lens to ensure no child faces the school day hungry.
Dr Sincovich has been leading South Australian research investigating breakfast skipping and identifying effective and sustainable interventions to promote breakfast consumption among children and adolescents.
Image: note thanun/Unsplash