Breakfast program at Bellingen High

Starting the day right: Bellingen High School students Kacey Blackwell, Layla Gomez-Ledger, Tiara Salmon and Quinn Gibson
Starting the day right: Bellingen High School students Kacey Blackwell, Layla Gomez-Ledger, Tiara Salmon and Quinn Gibson

Bellingen High School librarian Haridian Ramirez is realistic about teenagers' breakfast habits.

"As most parents know, they prefer not to eat first thing in the morning. Their bodies are more inclined to stay asleep than to get up and get going."

This may be frustrating for parents but it runs deeper for teachers who know that empty tummies lead to lower concentration, a reduced ability to engage with class work, and in some cases, disruptive behaviour.

"It's a well-known connection," Haridian says, "but not so much anymore, thanks to this wonderful brekkie program."

Although sponsored by Vinnies and funded through its op shop sales, the idea of a school breakfast program has less to do with charity and more to do with helping students get a good start to the working day.

"It's a real investment in our students' future," Haridian says. "While a few of the kids come from homes we'd think of as disadvantaged, the fact is that many students prefer a breakfast at 8.15 when they're already here than an hour or more earlier when they're shaking off sleep."

Sarah Mason, a social worker who coordinates the southern sector of Vinnies Breaking the Barriers program, agrees.

"We've been running breakfast programs in various primary and high schools, and the teachers invariably say how a bowl of cereal or a few slices of toast can make all the difference to how students handle the first periods of the day."

Haridian Ramirez has lifted the program to another level, working with 15 volunteer students to compile menus with a focus on healthy eating, low waste, and a general attitude that things should run "like a business".

Bellingen IGA is a good source, donating food and offering generous discounts. The local Foodbank is another provider of well-priced food, as is LifeHouse, which runs op shops and food stores. Swiss Patisserie and Hearthfire are also major supporters.

Providing breakfasts is part of the school's strategic plan to increase student wellbeing and engagement, kicking off in term 4 of 2018, after the arrival of the new principal, Kim Dixon.

Before the volunteers open the pop-up kitchen they sign on, "like a real job", thoroughly wash their hands, and get everything ready for the onslaught of their "customers" who will number at least one-tenth of the school's 600 students, often more.

They bring out the fresh fruit, the juicer, cereal, muffins, eggs, baked beans, buns, the tea urn. Shortly before the 9am bell they clean-up, then sign off and head to class.

"It's an intense 45 minutes in the morning," Haridian says, with the obvious agreement of the students, "but they do such a great job."

The breakfasting students also pull their weight. They fry their own eggs, mostly from the school's own chook pen, where the vegie scraps are tipped, serve themselves and each other, and engage in what teachers agree is valuable pre-class socialising. Any students needing personal assistance can speak with youth workers from the Bellingen Youth Hub who come along regularly.

By the 9am bell, all is clean and classes are starting. Haridian goes back to her library duties where students - notably well behaved - are lining up for laptops.

Food donations, including fresh fruit, are welcome - contact Haridian Ramirez on 0456 375 111.