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Professor Margaret (Greta) Defeyter

Since 2007, Greta has led a team of researchers who have been investigating the effects of breakfast on children’s cognitive performance and social behaviours. The impact of this research has resulted in the funding of a number of school breakfast programmes focussing on improved nutritional, educational and social outcomes and her work has been captured in a REF Impact Case study for the Department of Psychology, Northumbria University (https://www.northumbria.ac.uk/research/case-studies/northumbria-researchers-advise-government-on-breakfast-clubs/). Professor Defeyter is one of the first and notable developmental psychologists, within the UK, to conduct innovative research in this area. The application of developmental psychological theory, combined with collaboration with academics from Education, Health, Social Work, and Nutrition and practitioners clearly demonstrates her commitment to translational research. Indeed research findings from Professor Defeyter’s lab have resulted in improved educational outcomes and quality of life (social deprivation, food poverty and behaviours) for thousands of children in the UK.

Professor Defeyter’s research programme consists of a number of studies that have investigated the effects of GI (Glycaemic Index) on children’s cognitive performance; the effect of breakfast club attendance on children’s behaviour, cognition and social friendships; and children’s perceptions of portion sizes. Studies investigating the effects of breakfast consumption have primarily focussed on nutritional and academic outcomes and only a few studies have systematically examined the impact of breakfast on a range of cognitive measures. Even fewer studies have investigated the effect of breakfasts that differ in terms of nutritional composition. Early work conducted in her lab demonstrated that the actual composition of breakfast effects children’s subsequent performance on tasks measuring memory and attention (Ingwersen, Defeyter, Kennedy & Scholey, 2007).
As an esteemed academic in this field, Professor Defeyter advises a number of national governmental and international committees, including her role as key academic advisor to the All Party Parliamentary Group on School Food, providing guidance and advice to the twenty-five strong MPs and Lords group. This advisory role has also seen Professor Defeyter providing a significant contribution to two government position papers; one paper being ‘Health and Well Being Boards’ published in January 2013; the other a White Paper “Holiday Hunger” in March 2014. Another very significant outcome of this Westminster advisory role has seen the formation of an international community of practice on school food, in collaboration with Professor Donald Bundy of The World Bank and a forthcoming inaugural, co-badged Northumbria University and Imperial College London, research to practice seminar at The House of Commons.

Professor Defeyter is a sitting member and academic advisor to The European School Breakfast Club Committee (Brussels); an industry-led Breakfast Club Steering Group; The British Food and Drinking Group; the North East Child Poverty Commission; and the National Charity Chefs Adopt a School). Her proactive membership of these organisations, parliamentary committees and special interest groups, has directly impacted public policy-making.
Her research findings have also been presented in the Westminster Parliamentary Newsletter (17/07/08), at the Parliamentary Food and Health Forum (23/03/2010), and the House of Lords (September, 2008; February, 2009). The programme of research has also been widely disseminated to academics, businesses and the public through a number of conference presentations. For example, as an invited speaker at the National Nutrition and Health Conference and an invited speaker for the Vitafoods International Conference, and the Institute of Local Governance. Professor Defeyter has received a significant amount of national and international press coverage and interest, resulting in increased public awareness and knowledge of her underpinning research (e.g. BBC News 24, Look North, Tyne Tees, Complete Nutrition (Australian Edition), Eating Well Magazine (USA), Dieticians Magazine, Dietetics Today, Scientific America, and have disseminated to local education authorities, at a National level, through the Connexions direct website (01/12/2008), and TES Direct (27/03/2009).

Professor Defeyter has organised and hosted an international and prestigious ESRC Knowledge Exchange Conference on School Breakfast Clubs: Research, Policy and Practice. This event was co-funded by the ESRC, Kellogg’s and ContinYou (a National Charity) and the opening address was given by Ann Milton, Parliamentary under Secretary for Public Health. Delegates included MPs; businesses, charity workers; teachers; the Food Standards Agency; Public Health North East; national and international academics, and representatives from Regional Councils. The overarching aim of the conference was to secure awareness of the importance of children’s nutrition in relation to their cognitive and social development and in light of this ensure that breakfast club provision exists in schools throughout the UK and resulted in a significant increase of new school breakfast clubs and being invited to a multi-disciplinary workshop in Brussels (2014). Currently Professor Defeyter’s lab is offering free online training to over four hundred school teachers and staff on school breakfast clubs. Professor Defeyter has engaged in a significant amount of public engagement regarding the association between nutrition and cognitive performance and psychological wellbeing; including, two exhibitions at the British Science Festival (September, 2013) and a five month exhibition at the International Centre for Life. Currently Professor Defeyter is co-investigator and academic advisor on a Wellcome Trust Grant with the International Centre for Life to develop an innovative exhibit on ‘Brain, Mind, and Culture.’

Recently, Professor Defeyter’s evaluation of one of the largest city-wide free breakfast projects in the UK demonstrated original application of psychological findings regarding children’s and parents attitudes and behaviours towards the development of Blackpool’s free schools breakfast club programme. Based on these findings and recommendations, Blackpool Council and Blackpool Public Health funded a £1.3m scheme to provide a nutritious breakfast of fruit, yoghurt and bread to all of its 12,000 primary pupils. Ongoing research has shown gains in primary school children’s educational attainment, behaviours and nutritional profiles and an increased awareness in households about many positive benefits of breakfast consumption. This research has subsequently been presented to the All Party Parliamentary Group on School Food (October 2013) and the BPS North East of England Branch Conference (September, 2014).

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