Breakfast offers food for thought
Since students do poorly on an empty stomach,
successful schools are serving a morning meal
2007 04:30 AM
Olivier Basinga and Angelo Gonzalez
sit facing each other across one of the eating
tables, 14-year old Olivier leaving a pile of toast
crusts on his plate.
It's just after 8 a.m. Angelo, 12,
looks around the assembly hall at the others at
school so early, and says, "Parents are off working
In the kitchen, volunteers Prudence
Crooks and Suad Sultan, whose son is in Grade 4 here
at North Kipling Junior Middle School, prepare
breakfast. Toast with cheese or butter. Yogurt,
cereal, fruit, milk, apple juice and orange juice.
And, a treat on this day, croissants donated by a
"You have to eat breakfast," says
Crooks, a native of Jamaica. "When I see a kid
hungry, that bothers me a lot. They can't
concentrate. They look tired."
School Project, a Toronto Star
investigation, looked at two elementary schools
– North Kipling and Charles E. Webster Junior Public
School. Both share the tremendous task of educating
mostly poor students. Their parents, many of them
immigrants who work for low wages at night, often
don't have the time or cannot afford to feed their
kids breakfast. Many are not home before bedtime to
help with homework.
Nora Howley, a Washington,
D.C.-based advocate for promoting healthy lifestyles
for kids in school, says a breakfast program can
help improve absenteeism rates and academic
"I've never met a school leader that
didn't believe that healthy kids made better
students," says Howley, interim executive director
of Action for Healthy Kids. "There's obviously a
very strong evidence base around breakfast in terms
of improving academic outcomes, and that evidence is
stronger among low-income kids."
A breakfast program could benefit
kids at Webster, where principal Anne Beetlestone
says absenteeism rates trouble her.
Of all elementary schools in the top
150 on the Toronto school board's Learning
Opportunities Index – a ranking of schools according
to the neediness of the surrounding neighbourhood –
Webster is among the 15 per cent minority that do
not have a nutrition program.
After the Star started
investigating Webster, the school has applied for a
snack program and has been approved.
"This is a hot topic," Beetlestone
says. "It's so crucial to learning."
She says a teacher came forward with
the idea a few weeks ago.
"You need somebody to sort of
champion something like that. A teacher approached
me and I just about died. Yes, yes, yes. Fabulous."
Albion Neighbourhood Services runs
the North Kipling breakfast club, which feeds
anywhere from 60 to 90 kids each morning.
The Humber Rotary Club annually
donates $5,500, a little less than half of the
annual cost, and the balance is covered by a grant
from the Toronto Foundation for Student Success.
School staffers pitch in, too.
On one recent morning, the school's
vice-principal baked banana bread for the kids.
Students are supposed to pay 25
cents per meal.
But no student is turned away,
whether they have change in their pocket or not.
The program at North Kipling started
five years ago when Hans Gupta, who did not have a
child in the school but lived in one of the nearby
apartment buildings, secured the Rotary Club
donation. After hearing from the parent of a student
that a snack program was at risk of closing due to
lack of funds, he went to work.
"I got involved personally. You read
that if kids go through with an empty stomach, they
can't read. I went in at 7 a.m. For three years, I
never missed a day."
Some mornings he would bring the
groceries while keeping an eye on providing food
that met the school board's nutritional guidelines.
"For them, that (breakfast) would be the main meal
of the day. One day a kid came to me and cried, said
`Can I have some more? This is the only food I had
since yesterday afternoon.'"
Gupta, 67, moved out of the area in
2004. But he's still active in the North Kipling
community, and still champions the breakfast
Gupta is a key player in another
community outreach event held at North Kipling.
We'll hear more about him later, in another
instalment of School Project to publish later in the
About 60 kids are eating this
morning. They've tossed their bags and coats against
a wall before grabbing a tray.
North Kipling's principal, Lesa
Semcesen, wants at least one staffer to come early
each morning and eat with the kids.
She says showing up and eating sends
a message: "It's okay not to have food in your
fridge. We're all in this together."
In a couple of hours, at around
10:30 a.m., the kids will get a fruit-and-fibre
snack, like a banana and crackers.
The opening bell about to ring,
Crooks and Sultan, her head wrapped in a grey and
black hijab, start feeding bowls into the
Semcesen pokes her head in the
doorway to the kitchen and asks, "So, you're rocking
and rolling today?"
David Bruser can be reached at
416-869-4282 and by email at