'Empty tummy disadvantage': hunger leaves millions of school children at risk of missing career ambitions

  • 4 million children may go to school with an empty stomach in the UK, putting them at a disadvantage in learning and achieving their goals[1]
  • New research from Arla reveals that this ‘Empty Tummy Disadvantage’ could lead to an estimated shortage of 455,000 missing doctor and nurses by 2043[2]
  • Free breakfast clubs, such as those provided by the charity Magic Breakfast with support from Arla Cravendale, could help close the attainment gap

New research from the UK’s largest dairy cooperative, Arla, has revealed the UK could have a shortfall of nearly half a million doctors and nurses by 2043, if we do not address child hunger.

In what has been coined the ‘Empty Tummy Disadvantage’, Arla’s latest report suggests that the four million[1] children who currently arrive to school with an empty stomach are at an immediate disadvantage in learning and achieving their goals, which means we could have a future shortfall of 455,000 doctors and nurses, 413,000 veterinarians and 331,000 police officers.

By the age of eleven, most children (77%) have already decided what they want to be when they grow up. Most of their dreams – including doctor or nurse (11%), professional athlete (12%), vet (10%), teacher (7%) or scientist (6%) – require top grades to achieve.

However, the highest grades can be out of reach for children experiencing daily hunger, which can significantly impact their concentration, behaviour and ability to learn.

Arla’s ‘Empty Tummy Disadvantage’ report also found that majority (84%) of parents notice changes in their child’s behaviour when hungry, including becoming more irritable (44%) and less able to concentrate (16%).

Dr Simon Moore, Behavioural Science Expert, explains: “On an empty stomach, our body produces a specific hormone called Ghrelin, where high levels have been linked to shorter levels of attention span. For children, this feeling of hunger can provide a shift from longer term concentration in school to distracted and less tolerant behaviour. This could have potential implications on a child's ability to focus, therefore providing a barrier to learning and reaching their true potential.”

Free breakfast clubs can help close this gap, providing school children with the nutrition they need to thrive in classes and achieve their potential. But according to the sample of parents surveyed by Arla, fewer than one in five (18%) parents could access a free breakfast club at school, with others needing to pay to use the service (50%), unsure what was on offer (13%) or saying there was no breakfast club in their school (19%).

As a result, only 13% of parents sent their child to breakfast club every school day, despite an estimated quarter of children experiencing food insecurity.[2]

Arla is working with the charity Magic Breakfast to help ensure that no child in the UK is too hungry to learn. In the last three years, the dairy cooperative has provided Arla Cravendale milk for more than 8.5 million bowls of Magic Breakfast morning cereal. As part of the partnership, together they’re calling on the nation to learn more about the issues surrounding morning hunger to help re-write the future for the next generation and ensure every child facing food insecurity has access to a free breakfast.

Lucy Norman, Primary School Teacher at Campsbourne Primary School, said: “The sad reality of being a teacher is seeing children starting at a disadvantage because they’re hungry, which immediately impacts their ability to learn. I have unfortunately seen firsthand the impact of the empty tummy disadvantage. Children that are hungry are often less able to concentrate and keep engaged in lessons, which has knock-on effects on their learning development. Free breakfast clubs help close the gap and give all kids a fair chance to succeed, so the more we can do to make them widely available across the UK, the better.”

Catriona Mantle, Head of Milk at Arla, said: “No child should have to attend school on an empty stomach; however, we know this is sadly the reality for many children in the UK. At Arla, we believe in closing the hunger gap and the importance of ensuring healthy and nutritious dairy is available to all.  Together with Magic Breakfast we are raising awareness of the Empty Tummy Disadvantage and encouraging as many people as possible to add their voices in #BackingBreakfast.”

Arla and Magic Breakfast have worked together since 2020 and donated enough Cravendale milk to fill more than 8.5 million cereal bowls. Together they are raising awareness of the issues surrounding morning hunger to help re-write the future for the next generation. To find out more about Arla and Magic Breakfast’s partnership and sign-up to support visit https://www.arlafoods.co.uk/food-for-thought/arla-and-magic-breakfast/.   

Contact Information

Fiona Lane


Notes to editors

[1] Food Foundation, Food Insecurity Tracker, June 2023

[2] Arla, The Empty Tummy Disadvantage, Focaldata 2023