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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 5, March 2007

Nutrition and learning

by Yvonne Eamor

The Cost of Eating in BC is the annual report of Dietitians of Canada and this year’s data takes a discouraging look at the plight of many BC families whose meals often come down to choosing between putting food on the table or providing a basic necessity such as shelter or clothing. "Food insecure" is the polite term to describe those who lack the basic food intake to provide them with the nutrients most of us take for granted.

In 2005, children comprised one-third of the 75,000 British Columbians who used food banks to help supplement their food intake. For a province with a record surplus, says Dietitians of Canada, BC is also the province with the highest childhood poverty rate in Canada.

Food insecurity can have devastating and life-long developmental impacts on children and some of those play out in the classroom. "The link between nutrition and learning is well established," says Andrea Ottem, Registered Dietitians and contributor to The Cost of Eating in BC. "Inadequate income is a major barrier to eating well. If there’s not enough money, the quantity and the quality of food in the home suffer."

The report breaks down the monthly costs for a family of four on welfare and shows it will spend 41% of its income on food and will have $14 left over at the end of the month after food and shelter costs. Compare that to a family of four with an average income that will spend just 15% of its income for food and have $2,425 left over after food and shelter costs. Single-parent families fall somewhere in-between.

For school-age children, the fallout of food insecurity is considerable. Ottem says, "Children and youth who eat a healthy diet do better on many fronts, academically, emotionally, and behaviourally."

Kids from low-income families often start school with the type of health issues that teachers know only too well. A Canadian study on child hunger (CMA, Vol. 163, Issue 8) shows hungry children will learn more slowly, will likely have behaviour problems, and have health problems that will contribute to the country’s ballooning healthcare costs.

Vancouver Coastal Health Nutritionist Barbara Crocker says when kids are hungry, "they can’t tend to the teachers, and they can’t listen because they’re focussed on their tummies. On a simple level, reaction to hunger is poor concentration. It’s been shown that well-nourished children do better academically."

An American study on malnutrition, poverty, and intellectual development published in 1996 (Scientific American, 1996) showed poor diet influences mental development. It also sounded the alarm of a staggering prevalence of childhood that "triggers an array of health problems in children, many of which can become chronic."

The Public Health Agency of Canada says Canadians who don’t get enough to eat are far more likely to have failing health or report that the state of their health falls in a fair-to-poor category. They also tend to have multiple chronic conditions and often they report psychological issues such as social exclusion, distress, and depression.

Of course, it’s never too early to try to make certain that every child receives the proper nutrition. "There are a whole bunch of things that happen in the early years," says Crocker. "What are the assets in our community to launch our kids? How about food programs in daycare, and adequate funding? There needs to be a change in funding for low-income families, and while we’re naïve to put all our energy there, we also need to look at local programs that can help support families."

She says parents shouldn’t be left with the entire responsibility for ensuring all of our children receive the proper nutrition. "We all need to work together. We need school champions, and we need to engage everyone. Food is for all of us."

Dietitians of Canada has launched a call to action to provide safe and healthy food for all Canadians. It’s suggesting a call for higher welfare rates, a higher minimum wage, and affordable housing. It invites the public to read its annual report in its entirety (www.dietitians.ca) and to get involved to make change.

The organization says that if the Liberal government in BC is serious about the province being the most literate jurisdiction by 2010, it needs to address food insecurity and commit to a healthy eating and food security strategy. While the government has committed funds to support some initiatives, the Dietitians of Canada says it really needs to address the issue of poverty.

Yvonne Eamor is the BCTF’s media relations officer.

Some recommendations from The Cost of Eating in BC, 2006:

  1. Governments, at all levels, establish poverty reduction as an important policy goal.
  2. Income assistance rates be increased to bring families on assistance out of poverty.
  3. The minimum wage be increased.
  4. Funding and support for adequate social housing be immediately put in place.
  5. Government, at all levels, adequately fund sustainable initiatives that support food security for low income families.
  6. Health Canada update the food costing toll based on what Canadians are eating.


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