Breakfast program boosts student brains, according to study

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Breakfast for the brain. A new evaluation of Toronto's school breakfast program shows a link between a morning meal and performance at school

"Providing students with a healthy breakfast every morning improved their academic performance, behaviour, attendance and health," says Sandra Best, a director of the Toronto Foundation for Student Success, which co-produced the study with the Toronto District School Board.

The research was an evaluation of Toronto's Feeding Our Future program, which began providing free morning meals to students in four Toronto middle schools and three Toronto high schools in 2008.

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The program was launched after the school board discovered that a majority of kids in Toronto's Jane and Finch neighbourhood were going to school daily on an empty stomach. With prior research showing that kids who get a good meal in the morning do better at school, the Toronto Foundation for Student Success got to work filling those stomachs.

The study evaluated the impact the breakfast program had on the health, behaviour and achievement of 6,000 students over a two-year period.

Interviews suggested that students improved their behaviour, were late less often, and more able to focus on their work. And researchers compared academic results of those who reported eating breakfast three or more times a week with those who didn't.

"We learned that there is a significant gap in learning, achievement and health between students who eat a healthy breakfast every day and those who do not," says Best. "Students who don't eat breakfast are twice as likely to be struggling in reading and twice as likely to be struggling in science."

They found that 78 per cent of breakfast-eating high school students were set to graduate, versus only 61 per cent of high school students who don't eat proper morning meals.

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But without a control group, these comparisons, while compelling, are not entirely convincing. It's hard to tell whether the results are caused by the morning meal, or by other potential factors.

For example, those who declined a free breakfast might also be more less likely to work on a homework assignment. Or perhaps kids who took a free breakfast did so because their parents emphasize the importance of breakfast -- which in turn, might indicate that their parents are more involved in their academic performance, pushing them to get good grades.

That said, denying children breakfast in the name of a good scientific control group might be a tad unethical.

Meanwhile, the Toronto Foundation for Student Success is hoping this research will help spread the word about the importance of food programs for students. If it helps more kids attain better results at school, hopefully that will translate to better jobs later on and a boost for the economy. Which would justify the expense of the programs.

"Student nutrition programs are under-funded," says Best. "There needs to be a larger, national conversation about their impact on long-term health care costs and the economy."

Watch the CBC news report on the Toronto study linking breakfast with academic success.

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