The view from here - Canada - Behaviour improvement in the best possible taste

18th November 2011 at 00:00

Following the 2007 shooting of a 15-year-old boy in a high school in a poor and violent part of Toronto, many expected principals to call for a US-style crackdown. But instead of hardening their schools with metal detectors and extra police, school leaders told the city's board of education that the best way to improve morale, behaviour and school performance was to feed pupils breakfast and lunch. Three years later, the results are in - and they tell a story of astounding success.

"Sixty-eight per cent of students in this area were coming to school without having eaten anything for breakfast," says Catherine Parsonage, executive director of the Toronto Foundation for Student Success, which runs food programmes in four middle and three high schools. "Even more stunning was the fact that 20 per cent missed both breakfast and lunch."

Since the breakfast and lunch programme began, the number of 12 and 13-year-olds failing to achieve the minimum reading level has dropped by 50 per cent, and the rate achieving high reading scores has increased by 10 percentage points. In science, the proportion of students failing to achieve the provincial minimum has fallen from 44 to 28 per cent.

"If a child has poor problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills, he or she is more likely to be a behaviour problem," Ms Parsonage said. "Students in the programme score higher on conflict-resolution and problem-solving tests.

"These differences show up in their behaviour in class and even in suspensions and expulsions, which dropped by half."

The figures for high-school students tell the same story: 22 per cent of 15-year-olds who eat the free meals are at risk of not graduating, compared with 39 per cent of their peers who go hungry.

"We started by putting food out in the hallway thinking that hungry kids would take it, but they wouldn't because of the stigma," said Ms Parsonage. "So we opted to feed every child every day."

"Despite the rise in youth obesity, the fact is that large numbers of Canadian youth (600,000) come to school hungry, and as a result cannot learn," said opposition MP Dr Kirsty Duncan, who is pressing the federal government to take up the issue. "Canada is one of the few developed countries without a national nutrition programme."

The food programme started as a creative response to a tragic shooting. But with the results in, it could lead to fewer children across the country missing meals and the chance of educational success.

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