Breakfast offers food for thought

Since students do poorly on an empty stomach, successful schools are serving a morning meal

Jun 05, 2007 04:30 AM

Staff Reporter

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 late shifts."

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 parent.

"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 achievement.

"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 program.

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 week.

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 dishwasher.

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


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