The link between proper nourishment and academic success has long been articulated by many nutritionists and with the renewed focus on literacy by the Ministry of Education, a child’s diet is seen as a key component in the learning process.
Proper nourishment is important for the physical, social and mental development of an individual. For children, this is very essential, as poor health, coupled with inadequate nutrition, reduces a child’s cognitive development, either through physiological changes and/or by reducing the ability to participate in learning experiences. As a result, it has been argued, a child who is undernourished, has a tendency to be a slow learner.
In an interview with JIS News, noted Food and Nutrition Consultant, Dr. Heather Little-White, explains that iron deficiency is one of the nutritional deficiencies of children who have poor diets.
She also points out that iron deficiency and anaemia may lead to shortened attention span, irritability, fatigue and difficulty with concentration in school. In addition, children who are anaemic tend to do poorly in vocabulary, reading, mathematics and other subjects.
Undernourished children also have lower resistance to infections and are more likely to die from common ailments. These can be identified primarily through diarrhoeal diseases and respiratory infections.
Children from (poor) socio-economic backgrounds are at greater risk for poor nourishment. Many children do not get enough to eat each day because their families lack the financial resources to purchase adequate food. On the other hand, others consume meals that are unbalanced, primarily lacking adequate proteins and which are insufficient in quantity, which temporarily appease their hunger but do not meet their overall nutritional needs. This scenario puts them at risk of developing chronic illnesses, such as obesity, heart disease, iron deficiency and juvenile diabetes, as their diets are high in fat, sugar and sodium.
Director of the School Feeding Programme at the Ministry of Education, Helen Robertson, tells JIS News that children who are adequately nourished perform better in school, grow into healthier adults and are able to give their own children a better start in life.
From as far back as 1926, the significance of nutritious meals to students led a group of charitable persons to finance the preparation of lunches in schools in the Corporate Area. This programme attracted the Government’s attention and in 1939 it began to participate in a limited number of schools.
The programme has expanded over the years and currently there are two components: the Nutribun and milk/drink; and the traditional/cooked lunch for children in basic, infant, primary and all-age schools.
Ms. Robertson explains that the goals of the programme are to encourage greater and regularised school attendance; to alleviate hunger, and enhance the learning capacity of the students by providing a meal or a snack; to educate children on the value of food through nutrition education classes; and to encourage children to grow their own food by establishing and supporting school gardens.
“The nutribun component is principally the responsibility of the Nutrition Products Limited (an agency of the Ministry of Education). The aim is to produce and distribute nutribun snacks, which are comprised of milk and a solid bun, rock cake, bulla, spice cake and cheese bread to approximately 136,000 students. There are three factories strategically located to ensure easy access to schools islandwide. Students are asked to make a contribution of $2.00 per snack. However, where a child is unable to pay this, he or she is not deprived of a nutribun snack, as there is provision for free snacks,” she explains.
The traditional cooked lunch is given to 175,000 students in 636 schools. “The Ministry of Education provides long grain rice, cornmeal, flour, vegetable oil, corned beef and mackerel,” Ms. Robertson tells JIS News.
To ensure that every child is able to benefit from the programme, the Ministry has reduced the cost each child pays for the meal, by providing a feeding grant and an additional subsidy of $350.00 per annum per child in infant, primary, all-age, primary and junior high and some high schools. Furthermore, the recipients in recognized basic schools benefit from a nutrition subsidy of $250.00 per year per child and the Ministry provides the same commodities for 86,000 of these basic school children through the School Feeding Unit.
Students who participate in the programme are required to make a contribution to each meal. However, there is a provision for students who are unable to pay, to receive a meal free of cost. “This contribution, along with the subsidy paid by the Ministry assists in the payment of cooks, the purchasing of fuel, meat, vegetables and other items not supplied by the Ministry,” Ms. Robertson explains.
Children enjoying their lunch at school under the Government’s
School Feeding Programme.
The Government has allocated some $1.635 billion in the 2008/09 Estimates of Expenditure for the School Feeding Programme.
Many students from impoverished backgrounds, having participated in the programme, have benefited tremendously, with a significant improvement in their disposition, alertness and attitude to their learning environment and school-work on the whole.
Rennie Carr (not his real name), a youngster cited by Patricia Thompson, Registered Nutritionist with the New Horizons for Primary Schools Project, was described as droopy, listless and dull and not able to learn. He was underweight, based on both his age and height standards, lacking reading skills and unresponsive to teaching. Yet, he always seemed interested in books. A school feeding programme was started at his school and Rennie was able to benefit from a well balanced meal daily.
Within three weeks of being on the programme, his disposition improved and teachers found him alert, friendly and questioning and because of this, they started giving him remedial work. Within two years of the programme, stimulation and patient teaching, Rennie was ready for high school.
The former frail looking child who could hardly stand up straight and who looked like an eight year-old was actually 13 years old and was now of normal weight for his height and able to stand tall. He was given a chance to enter high school and by the end of grade 9, he placed 6th in his class and won two subject prizes.
Moreover, it should be noted that a child who is properly nourished, will be attentive, eager to learn, tolerant of classmates, concentrates on what is being taught, making the teaching experience enjoyable for the teacher. Likewise, children feel satisfied when they achieve and this motivates them to want to learn more.
“Poor nutrition results in irritability, lack of focus and hyper activity,” Principal of Victoria All-age School in Linstead, St. Catherine, Clantis Pinnock tells JIS News, while “proper nutrition should improve short term memory, co-ordination and concentration. It is important however to view learning holistically. Therefore, if all the factors and conditions are given and monitored accurately, children should be literate.”
Ms. Thompson explains that the effects of improper nourishment are manifested by way of difficulties experienced in the learning process before any visible signs of weight loss or growth retardation. As such, one cannot assume that a child of normal weight or one that is ‘chunky’ is well-nourished and “ready to learn.”
“Much of the hunger in Jamaica is ‘transient hunger’ or ‘short-term hunger’, which is occasional hunger eliminated by eating. Although adults have learned compensatory behaviour to cope with transient hunger, children have not yet developed this ability.both chronic hunger and transient hunger have a profound effect on a child’s physical and mental readiness for their school day, significantly impairing their ability to learn,” the Nutritionist says.
While it is important that the Ministry is playing its role in providing nutritious meals to schools, it is also important for the wider society to become more involved in ensuring that the future generation is properly nourished as, there is a relationship between nutrition and learning.
Parents should give their children well balanced nutritious meals and snacks in order to satisfy the nutritional needs of children of all ages. These meals should consist of the six groups as stated by the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute (CFNI), namely: staples, legumes, food from animals, fruits, vegetables, and fat and oils.
Whilst some might argue that amidst the rising food prices worldwide, they are unable to provide nutritious meals for their children, Dr. Little-White points out that parents should ‘go back to basics’ to make filling meals for their children.
“The use of cornmeal, bulgur and ground provisions such as plantains to make porridge is a nutritious and cost effective practice. Foods that are readily available such as calalloo and pak-choi and other vegetables can provide the needed minerals and vitamins to sustain good health. Peas and beans can stretch the protein content of meats by making hearty soups and stews. Parents can also help out with meal preparations at the canteen of their children’s school and where they have extra produce, they can contribute it to the school canteen programme. School gardens should be encouraged, so that children can eat what they grow,” she emphasises, giving support to the national thrust to secure Jamaica’s food supply.
It should be underscored that a consistent healthy food intake will help meet important educational outcomes, in addition to health outcomes and as such, schools should promote the importance of eating a well-balanced meal to aid in a child’s development. It cannot be overstated that every child can and will learn if properly fed.