The Breakfast Clubs. 4

This week’s post comes from DP intern Félix Lemetais. Félix is a French student currently doing the Eramus programme with DkIT studying Social Care. 

Breakfast Club in a classroom in Maryland, United States

Breakfast Club in a classroom in Maryland, United States

Breakfast clubs consist of offering a breakfast to children, which are issued to families who cannot provide them a proper breakfast for whatever reason. It can be because of a lack of money, or because the parents work too early to prepare it for their children. Sometimes in Ireland the breakfast clubs provide a little lunch and a lunch as well. This social welfare was led by the schools but now also by some associations in order to tackle the problem of early school leaving, inattention, starving in class and delays to come to class.

This kind of service does not exist in France and in many parts of Europe. In this blog, I would like to figure out the benefits and the issues of this social welfare, understanding why the perception of the breakfast clubs is different according to the countries.

On a first approach, the breakfast clubs raised a lot of questions for me. First of all,what about parental responsibility? If we analyse the situation without any sort of compassion, here are the questions which can come naturally:

– Isn’t it the job of the parents to provide food to their children?
– If they cannot provide them with enough food, isn’t it a form of abuse?
– To provide food to these children answers a need, but how can it resolve the main problem, which is the struggling of the family to provide for their children?
– Is there a risk of discrimination against the children of the breakfast clubs, if they are not sharing the meals with the others pupils?
– Where does the money and the food for the children come from?
– If children from 5 years old have to queue to have some food, is it degrading for them, do they feel good about it in a psychological way?

Why breakfast clubs don’t exist in France?

Primary school in France is really different than in Ireland. And I think I have to explain my culture to be better understood on my concerns.
School start usually at 8:30 and finish at 4:30 pm. A standard day for a child is very different. Children have no sandwiches for lunch, and parents do not have to prepare it in the morning. Children are allowed to eat a fruit or a biscuit at ten, but it is not considered a meal. There are huge debates in France nowadays to limit it, in order to tackle obesity. The midday break is between 11:30 and 1:30. So children have 2 hours to have lunch.

There are two cases:
– Children who have parents or grandparents who are not working during the midday break, go back home to have lunch (They cannot leave school alone, a parent has to pick them up at school).
– Children who cannot come back home, stay at school and eat at the canteen. They can have a 3-course meal for about 3 Euros. Parents have to pay every three months for the canteen, if they cannot afford it, the government can help them financially. Children have about 45 minutes to play in the playground after eating.

If a child comes to school without having eaten anything at breakfast too often, the case can be reported to the social organisations and Child Protection will work with the family.
We can understand here how the cultural way of eating can explain that there is no breakfast clubs in France. From my point a view, the fact that parents have to prepare breakfast, little lunch, and lunch to children, can be hard to do for families, and it is difficult to provide a healthy meal for children in this way. Is the cultural model of school responsible for the struggling of families, and for the high levels of obesity in some countries?

I started my work in comparing two researches made approximately at the same time, between the years 2006 and 2007, but in two different parts of the world, one in Drogheda, Ireland, and another in Quebec, Canada. Those two researches constitute the roots of this work for me as I never seen Breakfast clubs before. Afterwards, my aim was to go to a breakfast club to see what is really happening there and to what extent the breakfast clubs are useful in a society.
Both of the studies in Drogheda or in Quebec make an obvious positive statement on the breakfast clubs, pointing a lot of advantages – nearly only advantages.

The first aim of the breakfast clubs is to tackle the early leaving of the pupils, the delay, and the behavioral problem, which the studies consider as directly linked with the poor nutrition. The results are really convincing in both of them, teachers, parents, the organisation all agreed on the big success of the breakfast clubs.

My experience in the breakfast clubs.

I was welcomed into the breakfast clubs during three days, which gave me the time to make observe the situation, and to talk with the different characters involved in the breakfast clubs. The workers in Drogheda’s breakfast club are amazing people. Laughs, smiles and joy of life are on every single face in the kitchen, and I found in these people the warmth I missed in this end of winter in Ireland.
After this experience, I am able to answer all the questions I asked myself before, and some more issues came to me. I never had a doubt that to give food to starving children is a great thing, but the problem I have witnessed, is that it seems to be limited in answering the need.

The Irish model of the Breakfast Clubs is more like a soup kitchen, the families have to queue, and parents are allowed to come to eat with their children. Needing to queue to get some food can be, through my eyes disturbing for a child. Through my eyes, breakfast clubs in Drogheda are nowadays an act of charity, rather than the proper social work it has to be, the beginning of work with the families and the children.

I maybe looking at the situation through my young Frenchy student eyes and I grant you the fact than in France we are a little bit crazy with manners and food, but what I seen in the breakfast clubs deeply concerned me. I know that there is a big cultural difference on the ways of eating (for example, the little lunch does not exist in France) and I am not judging all these cultural differences.
Every moment of the day can become a source of education for children, and it is particularly relevant for children issued from needy families. First of all the system of self service is according to me a heresy for children from 4 to 12 years old. When I was 5, if you gave me the choice between pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausages, beans and fruits, my choice would be to go straight to the fattest and more sugary things! That is the same for the little lunch and the lunch, how can we expect children to eat in a healthy way if they have to pay more money to have fruits or salad? Why does the fish have to be fried in 2 litres of oil? Why do we put butter on all the rolls? Even the beverages are sugary!

From my point of view, children should not have choice, they should go to sit at the tables, and have a big plate with the meal, serve themselves because that develops the motor skills of the younger children, and be able to serve themselves the exact quantity they need, and like that, to avoid all the waste of food I have seen. They should drink water and serve that to themselves too.
Moreover, according to me, children should tidy and clean the table, instead of the staff, and then go to play all together, when everybody has finished their meal. What concerned me; is the fact that children eat fatty things, because they choose it, and moreover they eat fast, because they want to be first in the playground, or to join their friends who are already playing outside. They cannot learn how to eat in a healthy way and neither the elementary rules of politeness. I have never heard any “good morning”, “please”, “thank you”, “goodbye” during all my stay there, but it is like nobody minded that. Indeed, there is a huge queue to go in the self service and the staff are struggling to serve as fast as possible what the children have chosen, they have no time to advise them on the food. The staff (teachers most of the time) that supervise the room just stand there and do not interact with the children. If the staff served directly on the table pre-prepared pots, they would have more time to help young children to cut meat for example and to talk with them.

Another point which bothered me, is the fact that during the lunch, children who come to the breakfast club do not eat with the other ones who stay in class, some children do choose to come to eat in the breakfast clubs even if they are not in need of the service but it stay quite rare so we can see a very impressive difference between the children in need and the others. The first research of 2007 said that a dietitian should supervise the menus, and I really insist on this point. They should increase the price of fat food, and decrease the one of healthy one.

From my point of view, the breakfast clubs should be more user-friendly, and to be more attractive for the children who do not need it. Some games should be organized before the breakfast, maybe allow a place where children can read books and feel comfortable. There is no obvious sign of discrimination between children, but they are obviously not mixed. If little games where organized, children could come too eat in little groups rather than to wait a half an hour in a queue, this could help to have more of a social mix.
There are 30 employees in the breakfast clubs, working on a FAS contract. That means that they cannot work more than two years in the breakfast club. Fifteen of them are parents of children who are eating there. This job is pretty precarious and is more an experience for them, than a real chance to find a definitive job. The breakfast club welcomes around 200 children, only for breakfast. That means that the bigger part of the parents is not supported. Except some courses like Maths and English provided to the parents, nothing is done to integrate them more in the society. The aim of the breakfast club would have to welcome the fewer children as possible, but no work is done in this way. Between 2005 and 2014, the number of children eating in the breakfast clubs raised from 530 average children a day, to 820. Maybe the economic crises can explain these numbers, but it shows as well that no families are being worked with to improve their situations. Social workers should be involved in the breakfast clubs, in order to see for themselves directly and tackle the troubles of the targeted families.

My experience there permitted me to have a new perspective of the social care work, and to distinguish it with charity. To fight for a better education of children is the reason for what I am involved in the social care work. Education doesn’t mean only school, but every little thing we can bring to a child. Breakfast clubs will be successful when there will be no reason for it to exist or, when children would come only to have fun, to meet friends and to discover all the little things of life.

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4 thoughts on “The Breakfast Clubs.

  • Declan Mallon

    HI Felix,
    As an introduction to the Development Perspective Blog ‘The Breakfast Clubs’ was a very interesting and informative read. The cultural differences are quite significant and expect class plays a role in attitudes to food. Historically the Irish had little or no reputation for food. The staple diet bacon, cabbage and spuds was derives from economic rather than nutritional choice. This sadly persists. In some parts of America it is cheaper to buy certain brand drinks than have proper water provision.

    It is unfortunate to have to recognise that some people may not feed their children correctly in the morning because their work responsibility prevents them from doing so which insinuates a greater societal difficulty than we often care to admit. Education is indeed the solution and as you suggest utilising the clubs as an appropriate time to conduct this type of education is a no-brainer (but why doesn’t it happen?). The recognition that inequality is the major contributor to economic, educational and health difficulties might be the next lesson.

    Thanks for the erudition and insights.

  • colm durham

    Brilliant blog Felix . I agree with you that it is a very charity based approach and I think if there more of an educational element to it in order to teach children about the benefits of healthy nutrition instead of feeding them rubbish food with no plan to educate them on even the basic such as good manors or cleaning up after themselves . I think its a good concept and has some benefits although in the long term will not solve any of these problems in the long term .

  • Bobby McCormack

    Thanks for this insight Felix. Really thoughtful piece, which raises many questions. Lots of great suggestions as well. Comparisons to France are also helpful. Always good to get different views.