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Growing leaps and bounds

Without food in their tummies, it is difficult for school kids to learn and get through the day. Around Australia, close to 5000 kids attend breakfast clubs to reduce the hunger and do better in their classrooms.

"At least 25 kids are attending the breakfast club this morning," exclaims Philippa Martins. That's nearly half the children at Telopea Public school, adds Philippa, the breakfast club convenor, known as 'Pip' by the kids and parents.

Kids have been arriving at the western Sydney school since 8am. One of the first kids to walk through the door is year six student Vincent. He leads his younger sister Stephanie by the hand and they sit down with some friends.

"Breakfast is one of the most important meals. It's good to have a healthy start, so you can have a fun day," Vincent says, with a School Captain badge pinned to his shirt. "You get the good nutrients and that helps the brain think a lot better."

Pip welcomes the children, while she finishes chopping fresh fruit. A smorgasbord of cereals is laid out and wholemeal bread is ready for toasting.

The class room has been transformed in to a colourful venue for one of more than 200 Good Start Breakfast Clubs being run in schools around the country, supported by Red Cross. Studies show that one in four children miss out on breakfast at least one day a week, which affects their ability to learn.

"Remember to wash your hands," Pip calls out warmly, taking the opportunity to provide some hygiene education. Children excitedly examine their hands under a special light, revealing areas that still have bacteria on them.

"Who'd like cereal and who'd like toast?" Pip asks. "Toast please! Cereal please!" comes the reply in chorus as hands shoot up. The children sit patiently at their tables, chatting, while grazing on grapes and sliced apple.

The clang of cutlery on plates and bowls rings out around the play centre as they start tucking into their breakfasts.

"I love that we can just eat a meal, chat, sit together and talk. I love breakfast club, it helps us in class as well," says year four student, Kathleen as she polishes off her toast. Her friend Tegan nods in agreement and they both have a giggle.

"It's really nice to see them interacting socially, while giving them really the best start to the day with these healthy breakfasts," Pip says.

On top of running breakfast club twice a week, Pip is the Facilitator of the Schools as Community Centres project at Telopea Public School. She runs play groups and a range of activities, courses and programs for parents in the local community.

"We touch a lot on health and nutrition and incorporating ways that families can make those good healthy choices," Pip says.

One of the Red Cross programs Pip runs successfully with parents and kids is called FoodREDi. "FoodREDi looks at healthy food options and bringing healthy diet into the home," says Pip.

One of the mothers who attend play group, Anne-Marie, pipes in: "That program was so important in retraining not only myself but all the local mums on food and nutrition. Along the way, our interpretation of what healthy food is has changed."

Reducing processed foods, salt and sugar and eating wholefoods is vital says Anne-Marie. Her children's health has improved as a result of eating healthier food.

Her three-year-old daughter was having tantrums and getting really upset, Anne Marie says. "The behaviour has toned down, we don't get those meltdowns in the morning," she says with a relieved smile.

Later in the morning, about 30 kids run excitedly down the steps into a new school community garden, accompanied by the school Principal, Alan McGowen.

The children chat with Alan about the fruit trees and vegetables growing. Alan explains with three classes in total, the school is like a "little country school in the heart of the city. We're a very supportive school." Students are from many multicultural backgrounds, ranging from Sierra Leone to Iran, he adds.

Alan says the community garden aims to stimulate community interest and participation in the school. It is great to see that "for the first time, kids can say 'okay, all these are the elements of a salad, this is where it comes from'."

Gesturing at the carrots, celery and greens shooting up, Alan says "students will be able to take home bags of vegetables."

Vincent agrees. "You can grow the food, you can eat the food and it tastes delicious because they're fresh. It's a garden … and it makes you feel peaceful."

Alan says he has witnessed that kids perform better in class if they eat well. "Daily breakfast is critical for academic performance in the classroom or the ability to engage with the lessons."

Research shows that while most primary aged children eat breakfast regularly, there are some who miss out, particularly as they get older. Younger boys from families with lower incomes are three times more likely to miss breakfast than boys from families with higher income. Missing out on a nutritious breakfast can adversely affect a child's ability to concentrate, their social behaviour and early physical development.

Pip says it is so rewarding "teaching them some of those lifelong lessons that they'll take with them, about making healthy food choices."

"Some children might say to me 'I don't eat fruit'. All of a sudden they'll be eating fruit, so the children are being encouraged by their peers to eat healthily."

Kathleen shows her friends the celery, lettuce and radish growing in the garden. "My favourite healthy food probably has to be celery. I love celery and just the crunch of it."

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