School using fresh food to change lives

A remote school in north-west Queensland has launched a nutrition program aimed at improving attendance and student health.

Sunset State School in Mount Isa offers students breakfast, morning tea, and lunch free of charge — something teachers say is helping the entire community.

"It's available to everyone that comes here — any families, any children, any background," said principal Bryon Burke.

"We believe it's highly beneficial for our school and our kids, and certainly that's what the data is telling us."

Attendance rates improve

The index of community socio-educational advantage (ICSEA) ranks schools according to their level of educational advantage.

Sunset State School is ranked below the national average.

While limited educational advantage often goes hand-in-hand with poor attendance rates, Mr Burke said his school was now bucking the trend.

In 2015, school records show Sunset's Prep class reported an average attendance rate of 78.6 per cent.

Two years on, preliminary 2017 data ranks the attendance rate at 91.3 per cent, something Mr Burke attributes to the new nutrition program.

"The rates of sickness and absence in our children has significantly decreased, attendance rates at school have significantly increased," he said.

"Children are here far more regularly at school each day and it gives them the opportunity then to more frequently access the curriculum. Their learning is far more consistent."

Improving health and grades

What began as a trial for Prep students has been expanded across the entire primary school.

Prep teacher Sarah McKenzie said the value of the program was visible on report cards and on the students themselves.

"A lot of these children had lots of sores all over their skin, and just by having oranges every day has remarkably improved the quality of their skin," she said.

"From an education perspective as well, these kids are having the right nutrition for their brains, so they're able to focus for longer periods of time."

Ms McKenzie said the nutrition program was also helping to relieve pressure on teachers.

"It makes my job a lot easier as well because these students, they're healthy, they're ready to learn, and they're coming to school every day, which is the most important thing," she said.

Educating the community

Student support worker Jenny Craigie, who frequently works alongside parents and guardians, said the food program was also making a difference in homes.

"With Indigenous families, because fruit is a very expensive item, they'll only buy bags of oranges and bags of apples that come pretty cheap in bulk, but we miss out on a lot of other things like nectarines and our peaches, and our grapes," she said.

Ms Craigie said by exposing young children to fruit they did not recognise, the school was helping to expand their horizons.

"The reaction to some of these fruits is unreal, it's like the colours — they've never seen it before," she said.

"We actually had a honeydew melon [and] we cut it up.

"Those kids had seen a rockmelon, so they were like 'Miss, this fruit is not right — it's not the right colour'.

"I was no, no baby, that's the right colour. It's actually a honeydew melon."

Mr Burke said Sunset State School did not receive any extra funding to pay for the program.

He said it was about prioritising student welfare and making sure bellies were full.

"We saw issues such as attendance and nutrition in children and family support as important to us, and I fund those on a yearly basis to make sure that they happen," he said.