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On Breakfast, Kids and Common Sense


Cynthia Peters

Ivy

League institutions, major hospitals, and corporate money teamed up recently to

make the startling revelation: kids should eat breakfast.

You

may be forgiven for thinking that you already knew eating in the morning was a

good idea for kids, and for having come to that conclusion based on common

sense, or, perhaps, experience. But, in the future, you should leave these

complex issues to the experts.

After

all, experts play an important role in our lives. They remind us to doubt our

own common sense, which can’t be trusted, as it is not buttressed by advanced

degrees and corporate funding. And they do the important job of narrowing in on

tiny aspects of common sense assertions, separating them so drastically from

their context that we cannot think clearly about the whole picture. Thus, we are

expertly brought round full circle: desperately needing an expert to make sense

of the situation.

Consider

for example the recent research showing a link between school breakfast programs

and improved “psychosocial” behavior in children. According to a report in

the September 1998 Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, children who

participate in school breakfast programs not only have less “depression,

anxiety and hyperactivity,” but they show up at school more often and get

better grades in math.

Whereas

many of us might have accurately guessed that hunger and malnourishment make

kids anxious – and might not have even needed to know that much to have been

able to say simply that hunger should be remedied no matter what type of

behavior it results in – we are now left to wonder, absurdly, what happened to

the English and Social Studies grades? Why did they not improve along with the

math? Perhaps future studies will control for which kinds of breakfast foods

produce improvement in all subjects, or how much of a decrease in hunger-induced

anxiety is needed to improve concentration, or what additional enticements might

decrease absenteeism.

Further

research, in this case, would lead us even further away from the point. And that

is: if kids are hungry, they should be fed, simply because it is a human right.

Not because it will improve their math scores, help them sit still, visit the

nurse less often, and/or reduce tardiness. It is a sign of the mechanistic

product-oriented way we view children that we think of them (and study them) as

vessels receiving certain inputs (a little, a lot or no food) which then offer

up certain outputs (good or bad math scores).

Ronald

Kleinman, MD, chief of pediatric gastroenterology at Mass. General Hospital and

a conductor of the 1998 school breakfast study, says, seemingly without irony,

“This series of studies shows that those children who are consistently hungry

are most likely to do poorly in school and in other aspects of their lives.”

Digging

deep, the researchers made another common sense discovery: there is a stigma

attached to being poor. Students were more likely to participate in school

breakfast programs when the meals were offered free to all students, compared

with programs that provided free meals to low-income youngsters while others

paid for their breakfasts 

Provide

free meals to all children, and everyone benefits, including the funders of the

study – Kellogg corporation and the Mid-Atlantic Milk Marketing Association

– who get an opportunity to develop brand name recognition and product loyalty

in their target audience. Free breakfast programs provide cereal-makers with a

direct route to children. They don’t have to advertise their product, convince

children to convince their parents to make a purchase, or figure out how to

bypass the ethnic foods that might be the norm in multi-cultural inner-city

kitchens.

In

1999, the parent corporation of Post offered free cereal in the Boston public

school system. Indeed, high rates of poverty and welfare reform may mean many

children are going without breakfast. But rather than support families by making

it possible for them to have the time and resources to make breakfast for their

kids, our policy choices direct kids instead towards sugary cereals washed down

with milk. Not everyone agrees this is a step forward. State Senator from

Roxbury, Dianne Wilkerson, responded, “It’s crazy we should be giving urban

children milk for breakfast when such a high proportion of them are children of

color.”

According

to the Boston Globe, “Many nonwhites are lactose intolerant, which is the

inability to digest milk sugar, or lactose. If lactose is not broken apart, it

ferments in the intestines, causing abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and gas.

According to a review of studies on lactose intolerance by the Physicians

Committee for Responsible Medicine, it affects to some degree 70 percent of

African-Americans, 90 percent of Asian-Americans, 74 percent of Native

Americans, and 53 percent of Mexican-Americans. Minority children make up 84

percent of the 63,000 students in Boston public schools, according to a school

spokeswoman.”

Interestingly,

Kellogg’s’ and the milk marketer’s funding of the school breakfast study

is reported in the media without comment, but when Project Bread – a

Boston-based hunger advocacy group – sponsored a similar study in November

2000, the Boston Globe made a point of uncovering the group’s “political”

motivations. It turns out Project Bread supports legislation that would require

schools serving low-income students to offer breakfast as a built-in part of the

schedule for all students regardless of income, thus avoiding the stigma

associated with being poor. Activists at Project Bread think that school

breakfasts should be part of a statewide program to reduce hunger, which

remarkably has not decreased despite the robust economy. 

The

corporate funders’ profit motives merit no mention, but the goals of an

advocacy group – to reduce hunger for no other reason than hunger is bad –

are suspect.

Project

Bread might consider why it needs fancy studies and experts to justify breakfast

for children. (Incredibly, Dr. Kleinman who also authored the 2000 study in

Boston, so far knows only that breakfast “helps,” though he’s not sure

why. “It may simply be that breakfast helps organize the day, provides some

stability. Perhaps there is a nutritional benefit. Perhaps diminishing hunger

per se makes the difference.”) Project Bread might respond with a common sense

(and extremely inexpert) question: “Who cares?” The newsworthy story here is

that some children are hungry. Their families don’t have the money, time or

resources to feed them. That is an inexcusable disaster in a wealthy country

like ours.

Let’s

get the kids some breakfast – preferably not served up by the milk marketers

or the makers of Cap’n Crunch. And when everyone’s had a proper meal,

let’s study how it came about that 1 in 5 children under the age of 12 in

Massachusetts is hungry or at risk of being hungry, and how it evolved that

expert talking heads are spending lots of time and resources to draw

self-evident conclusions such as being consistently hungry causes anxiety. Such

nonsense not only deprives children of their humanity – by seeing them as

productive units who function less well when hungry – but it removes the rest

of us one step further from basic common sense conclusions that require no

justification, such as: hunger is unacceptable.

 

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