Brain food: how poverty harms children’s learning

Too many children are going to bed hungry, and it’s having a detrimental effect on their education. New initiatives are intended to change this

Day after day, children arrive to school – or go to bed – on an empty stomach. The results are predictable: they fall asleep in class, they get cranky and irritable, and discipline issues spiral. Attendance drops off; some teenagers drop out.

Treasa Leahy is the principal at Mercy Secondary School in Inchicore, Dublin 8, an all-girls school with many students from disadvantaged backgrounds or low-income families. She is is one of thousands of teachers in hundreds of schools across Ireland who faced the problem of children either not eating enough food, or eating too much of the wrong food.

Since 2008, Mercy Secondary School has run a breakfast club, where students come in before school begins and have a free breakfast, consisting of cereal tea, and toast. “We were noticing that some students were arriving to school hungry and that this seemed to be increasing,” says Leahy. “Since we introduced breakfast club, attention in class has improved, as have punctuality and attendance and, most importantly, school retention.

“It’s not entirely down to the breakfast club – we also have other initiatives such as the ‘College for Every Student’ initiative and other third-level access programmes – but there’s no doubt it has played a big part. If something as simple as a breakfast can keep children in school and help them progress to college, why not go with it?”


Last year, every student at Mercy Secondary School progressed to college or further education.

There are various reasons why students aren’t eating breakfast at home, says Leahy. “It may be that they hate getting out of bed, so skipping breakfast gives them an extra five or ten minutes. But on some days of the week, in some households, there isn’t money for milk or cornflakes. We know through our home school liaison service that some parents are really struggling to make ends meet. The people who always financially coped because they had a job still have a job, but they’re the new working poor and they’re struggling.”

In August, Lost Education, a study commissioned by children's charity Barnardos and Kellogg's, interviewed more than 500 primary and secondary school teachers about food. The findings were stark and worrying. Just under one in five teachers say they had seen an increase in the number of children arriving hungry at school.

Almost 40 per cent of teachers said they had taken food into school for a child who is regularly hungry, while 19 per cent said children are arriving hungry for lessons every day. Just under a third of teachers have seen children fall asleep in the back of the classroom because they hadn’t eaten.

Ten per cent of people in Ireland live in food poverty, defined in a study for St Vincent de Paul, the Combat Poverty Agency and Crosscare (the social support agency of the Dublin Catholic archdiocese) by researchers from UCD and NUI Galway as "the inability to have an adequate and nutritious diet due to issues of affordability and access to food with related impacts on health, culture and social participation".

Although food poverty is not restricted to families on low incomes, they are twice as likely to experience it.

Learning capacity

Irish and international research clearly shows that a nutritionally inadequate diet impacts on a child’s mental development and learning capacity, leading to poor school performance and early school leaving. Furthermore, it can negatively affect a child’s health in later life.

A recent study by the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative found that more than one in five Irish children are overweight and obese and that the problem is worse for children in designated disadvantaged schools. Nutritionists stress it’s not just having meals but having the right type of food that matters.

Mercy is one of hundreds of Irish schools which gets cereal free from Kellogg’s to run its breakfast club. The school bans fizzy drinks and crisps, and they do get the students to explore the fat and sugar content of food, including breakfast cereals. “But we don’t want to turn into the food police,” says Leahy. “We try to raise awareness around affordable and healthier alternatives to sweets and crisps, including fruit and nuts, as part of a balanced diet, and we also promote exercise, even if just going for a walk when stressed. We can’t force food they don’t want on them; it’s about staying engaged and listening.”

Margaret McCluskey, a now-retired Home Economics teacher, has been a long-time campaigner for improved food education in schools. McCluskey has worked in various schools, disadvantaged and otherwise.

“If a child can’t afford to buy ingredients for Home Economics, how can they afford to do the course?” she asks. “If we are really interested in improving the health of children, we have to start providing food in schools. Children in fee-paying schools get access to this, but we aren’t giving it to the children in the most disadvantaged areas. I’ve been in areas of Ireland where the children’s height was stunted due to poor nutrition.”

The Department of Social Protection has found it increasingly difficult to ignore the problem. Funding for the School Meals Programme, which provides food for over 200,000 children, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, has risen from €35 million in 2012 to €39 million today. Around 1,300 participating schools receive a maximum of 60 cents per child to help buy cereal, toast, fruit, yogurt and milk for breakfast, up to €1.40 for lunches including filled rolls, soups, salads, and fruit, or up to €1.90 for hot dinners.

Children’s charity Barnardos runs a number of breakfast clubs in schools and also provides breakfast clubs in their Early Years Centres. CEO Fergus Finlay says there are serious implications for children arriving at school without breakfast.

“We established the breakfast clubs to enable children settle down before the school day starts, have some fun and socialise with one another. But from the beginning, we realised that there are many children with significant nutritional issues. Kids coming to the clubs are arriving hungry; this has gotten worse, not better, over the past number of years. There is lots of evidence that children need support. One cook in a breakfast club said she stocks up with extra food on a Monday because children are coming in hungrier than usual after the weekend.”

Christine Quinlivan is a breakfast club co-ordinator with Barnardos in a Limerick city primary school. “We see the children becoming more grounded, settled and ready for the day, particularly if they are coming from a home where there may be a lot of stress or a poor morning routine,” she says.

Positive behaviour

“The children learn about positive behaviour too – they sit at a table and eat breakfast with others, they learn to take turns and share. Children, who may have missed a lot of days of school before, are now coming to breakfast club every single day and look forward to school. “

At Christ King Girls Secondary School in Douglas, Co Cork, principal Mary Keane says that teachers notice a clear correlation between discipline problems and nutrition. "If there is an issue, I always ask if they have had a breakfast and they usually say they didn't. They become cranky and can't concentrate; they get sick and weak. I stress the importance of feeding the brain. All research shows that good health – including good food – is closely linked to positive educational outcomes."

Christ King is part of the Health Promoting Schools Initiative. Several years ago, the school brought in a new caterer for the school canteen, with a stronger focus on healthy eating options.

“There’s not necessarily much to be achieved in banning certain foods or telling teenagers they can’t have chips – it’s almost a challenge. Instead, we provide a choice of healthy food options, including hot foods such as baked potatoes, curries and, every day, a salad option. At small break, we also provide students with a choice of two soups. It’s not about instructing students that they must eat certain foods; it’s about encouraging a balanced diet. Surprisingly, this is often most important when students are highly academically motivated, because when they get distressed they sometimes forget about food and don’t take the time to eat. The brain is a muscle and it must be flexed and given food.”


There’s a clear and well-established link between healthy eating and positive educational outcomes, and the result is that a disproportionate number of children who live in food poverty have less chance of progressing to third-level.

Dr Maireád Kiely, a senior lecturer in the school of food and nutritional sciences at UCC, says there is not always a direct link between poverty and healthy eating.

“Healthy diets need not cost more, but they need more time and effort to supply consistently,” she says. “Relative to their body size and appetite, children’s requirements for key nutrients such as iron, calcium and protein are quite high. These can only be met with quality food, so unhealthy diets make children more vulnerable to the risk of subclinical deficiencies.

“The risk of a child not meeting their nutritional requirements for healthy growth, including neurological development, is much higher if they have an unhealthy diet, particularly where they are missing out on key food such as protein sources.

“They can get this from meat, fish, eggs, dairy and legumes, which also contain iron, essential fatty acids and other nutrients that support growth and development.”

There are notable differences between developed and developing countries, says Kiely.

“In developing countries, inadequate protein and long-term malnutrition leads to stunting, which is low height and weight for age, and this is also associated with lack of educational attainment; there is a direct line from poverty to educational attainment.

“Within developed countries, where there is access to quality food, these links are not so clear and the story is not as simple. Many families who are struggling do manage to provide healthy diets for their children and others don’t, either because they don’t have the necessary skill sets for shopping, cooking or basic nutrition knowledge, or they don’t accept that providing a healthy diet is a priority.

“Sometimes, people are not clear on the link between healthy eating in children and optimal physical and cognitive development and how this affects them through school and, potentially, for their whole life. The best researched nutrients in this respect are iron and omega-3 fatty acids.”