Everyone deserves a healthy breakfast.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This November 20, we mark United Nations Universal Children’s Day, to promote the important goals of bettering child welfare, safeguarding the rights of children everywhere and forging global connections. On this day, said UNICEF’s executive director, Anthony Lake, “We are protecting our common future.”
Established back in 1954, Universal Children’s Day sparks inventive and valuable responses. For example, UNICEF is urging kids to “take over” high-profile roles in media, politics, business, sports and entertainment “to shine a light on the most pressing challenges faced by their generation.”
These remarkable events can help focus on important issues for children.
But there is another, relatively little-known issue that we rarely discuss, and which we must also focus on for Universal Children’s Day: many children do not enjoy the basic privilege of a healthy, nutritious breakfast.
Surveys have revealed that despite increasing knowledge about the dietary importance of a healthy breakfast, many Americans skip the morning meal. One survey by the NPD Group in 2011 reported that 31 million Americans – one in 10 – forgo breakfast each day. Now a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology warns that habit can carry longterm health consequences. People who skip breakfast have a greater chance of developing heart disease later in life.
A recent national survey by a leading breakfast cereal producer showed that one in five kids go without breakfast at least once a week, and the problem surges to 50% of kids who take their breakfasts “on the go.”
Israel – now globally regarded as a high-tech innovator, the “Start- Up Nation” – faces a different kind of breakfast challenge. While most children head to school in the morning with at least one breakfast sandwich, which they consume during a morning break, many families in lower-income brackets suffer from food insecurity – the inability to regularly access healthy food – and as a result, an estimated 21,000 kids go to school daily without any breakfast sandwich.
This challenge could potentially intensify: according to Israel’s National Insurance Institute, more than 800,000 children live below the poverty line.
The challenge of ensuring that our children eat a healthy breakfast may be widely overlooked in part because many consider the idea of a nutritious breakfast something our mothers pushed on us, but now outmoded or impractical in a faster- paced world.
But as someone involved with an organization that focuses on this issue in Israel, I see it differently.
The lack of a healthy breakfast may not only risk kids’ long-term health, as studies show, but also trap lower-income children in a cycle of poverty.
In the US, most lower-income children are fortunate to be able to access national school breakfast and lunch programs, which, while they entail their own set of challenges, including the issue of shaming, allow many children to at least enjoy a decent meal to start the day.
In Israel – and in many other countries – the problem remains more challenging. That’s where our nonprofit organization, Nevet, comes in. We provide 8,000 Israeli schoolchildren in grades 1-12 at 130 schools across our small country with a nutritious sandwich every morning. These simple sandwiches remain the key to our philosophy that a healthy breakfast not only provides a nutritional anchor but paves the way to effective learning and – ultimately – the access to greater social mobility.
In fact, 96% of school principals we surveyed said students who received our breakfast sandwiches showed a marked improvement in academic performance, and 83% of principals reported improved school attendance rates due to the program.
Unfortunately, Israel faces significant challenges in making sure all of our children enjoy a level playing field. A recent OECD survey of literacy in math, reading and science among 15-year-olds in 72 countries found Israel has the greatest gap in grades between students of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.
We’ve managed to improve economic opportunities for many children with a healthy breakfast, but we still have 13,500 children on our waiting lists due to a lack of resources. Other developed Western nations, as the surveys suggest, similarly fail to focus on the centrality of a healthy breakfast in children’s lives. Not to mention the dire problems facing Third World countries that make breakfast seem like a relatively trivial issue – widespread disease, even starvation, with children bearing the brunt of the suffering.
This Universal Children’s Day, while we highlight children let’s also focus on one of the most basic rights of children – a healthy breakfast. You can start in your own home, if you’re a parent; talk to others about it too. Educators, meanwhile, should also bring up the issue and feed children’s minds on this subject. Let’s not go through this day without taking the opportunity to add a healthy breakfast to the menu of children’s issues.The author is the vice president of strategic development for the Israeli nonprofit Nevet.