Coming across the corporate charity initiative Breakfast for Learning has challenged my beliefs and my thinking so much so that I continue my coverage of the issues that it identifies for me. I wrote about this in a December 7th , 2011 post: “feeding children or feeding the façade of corporate social responsibility?” and now follow-up on a few thoughts.
Again as I stated in that previous post I love kids and think that feeding them well, teaching them about nutrition and about what it means to be healthy is great. I am a firm believer in the value of eating good food to retain health and wellness, understanding how the body works and working with the body’s natural structure and design to support wellbeing. Therefore I feel it is fabulous for children to learn this early on. Incorporating this knowledge into their behaviour while they are still young gives them an excellent chance to avoid illness and poor health as they grow older. Great stuff!!!
My challenge of the corporate charity Breakfast for Learning is not founded in what they say they want to achieve (feeding hungry children and teaching them about nutrition in hopes of avoiding health issues such as obesity and diabetes) but that it is done in a rather deceptive way. There is lots of hype and press about what Breakfast for Learning does in schools across the country. The annual report is full of wonderful stories and pictures of the successes of the program. It all appears magnificent. When you drill down to see just how the program operates, how much money each program actually gets and what is then expected of the individual school programs, it looks less magnificent. Sort of reminds me of how the tailor fooled the Emperor in the classic Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Who wanted to tell him he looked pretty silly so proudly parading his naked body in front of the crowds?
With an average of just over $1000 allocated to each individual program the pressure is on the school, their parents and volunteers to carry the ball. Yes they do get some program materials to go along with the grant. However, with the small amount of grant money each school must establish the program, hire a coordinator, and run the program. It means fundraising at the school and parent level, acquiring volunteers, finding local businesses to donate food and finally having parents pay for the program. I understand that the Breakfast for Learning grant requirements are for an “inclusive” program and therefore schools are expected to include children whose parents cannot afford to pay. This puts additional stresses into the mix. The schools have to set up exemptions for some parents thus identifying students who are poor. These students risk feeling and being stigmatized. Some parents will feel bad about not being able to contribute and finally the school must cover the costs of these students with extra fundraising creates issues. I still question why, if parents are paying for the program and the school is fundraising what actual benefit is the charity’s involvement providing? But I know why. It gives their Corporate Social Responsibility Department something to report to its shareholders; check √.
My major concern is that instead of helping parents to feed their children nutritious meals we are ignoring their inability to do so at the same time as laying on a paternalistic approach to taking over, taking charge and fixing this nasty issue of child hunger. I have noted in previous posts that perhaps considering closing the gap between the rich and the poor is worth looking at; specifically providing a living wage so that parents can feed their children seems a little more fair and sensible (see Sharing the wealth, November 4, 2011; Choice in Present Times;October 28, 2011 etc.).That corporations choose to establish a non-profit charitable organization instead tells me that perhaps their intentions are slightly askew.
There are some valuable features of the Breakfast for Learning program. One such benefit is bringing community members into the school through volunteering. In addition to helping with the program these volunteers act as informal mentors for the students. Not a bad thing at all, actually very valuable and mutually beneficial. These volunteers however are also brought in to fundraise for various things including the program. This brings me to the next major challenge— where is the “public” in public education?
In addition to the regular school fees that are now the responsibility of the parents it seems like schools have to fundraise for everything: books; school supplies, field trips; gym equipment; special equipment and now food. For parents who are already stressed and living in poverty working at minimum wage jobs the added pressure to pay for programs like Breakfast for Learning, to volunteer, to fundraise and pay fees creates stress that the parents and children can do without.
Volunteers/parents are pulled in to carry out the fundraising activities of the school and as demands for fundraising increase so does the pressure on the volunteer pool. With this comes added stress and the potential value of the volunteers is often lost.
As if this is not enough the schools are now (through Breakfast for Learning) fundraising for educating children about health and nutrition. If children who eat nutritious foods and learn about nutrition have a better learning experience then why are health and nutrition education not part of the curriculum? And why are parents once again asked to contribute both time and money to something that is considered so basic to school success?
Is it because schools believe that feeding children is considered the responsibility of parents? That takes me right back to my questions about why we are not helping the parents in the first place.
Anyway you cut it this initiative (and there are probably many similar to it) raises red flags for me highlighting the drift away from family values and valuing parents, away from public education and away from true charity. Rather it is a pull towards the corporate-economic-business-model coming in to “fix” the predicament that they have had a major role in creating.
I have been wondering a lot about what true charity looks like…….
Irene McDermott © 2011