Since the start of the European migrant crisis, the news has periodically put forward worrying stories about the food situation in migrant camps. Sometimes we hear about officials chucking bags of food at migrants as if they were animals. Then there are the stories about riots breaking out in distribution lines, sparking fears of shortages, or of migrants boycotting camp food. Yet for all this coverage, many people have no idea what people in migrant camps worldwide actually eat, day-to-day, for breakfast.

That’s a worrying knowledge gap, because the food people eat in these camps can serve as a solid barometer for the level of attention and support a migrant community receives. It also plays a huge role in determining how tolerable life in the facilities can be, especially for children. (We’re using the term “migrant” here as a catch-all for people in transit rather than “refugee.” “Refugee” has a particular legal definition, and while some camps are entirely populated by refugees, like Syrian camps, others many throughout the wider world are full of people whose status is unclear.) 

Given how grim stories on the European migrant crisis seem, the breakfast situation in camps on the continent is surprisingly decent. Global focus on the crisis combined with (for the most part) governmental decency has meant that people in many camps on the continent get what sounds like a solid breakfast. In Germany, the state creates dietary guidelines and hire caterers to design a regular rotation of meals complying with them; for breakfast that means a regular flow of bread, milk, jam, and fruits in many facilities. Even in cash-strapped and overrun Greece, folks get pre-packaged bread rolls and cheese or chocolate croissants and juice boxes. Although the exact provisions and serving sizes can vary from camp to camp, they’re almost always adequate.  

The problem with this food is that, while sufficient, it’s almost universally regarded as repetitive and uninspiring. Jurriaan Momberg, a Dutch chef who started working on food projects with a group of refugees in Amsterdam last year, likened their rations to bulk hospital food, “made in packages... with a lot of hygiene, but not with love.” At best, breakfast menus vary for a few days, but then start an infinite loop, lacking in diversity, flavor, and often any fresh ingredients. Sure, it’s sustenance. But imagine eating the same sustenance on loop—especially stuff often foreign to your usual breakfast tastes—with no end in sight and you’ll understand why some people in camps, often lacking other occupations or hope for a quick transition to a new life, rebel against the monotony of the provisions, sometimes even propagating baseless rumors that states or relief organizations are giving them sub-par or spoiled food to force them out of a region.  

“If you’re forced to eat the same stuff all the time, that’s inhumane,” says Kilian Kleinschmidt, founder of the Innovation and Planning Agency NGO and the former United Nations head of the Za’atari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. He says that in that camp, as in many others, folks would often take their rations and immediately sell them to black market traders for a pittance with which to buy a more diversified diet in the market—to make a breakfast they’d want to eat. (Some migrant camp residents, like Rosa Abdu in Yida in South Sudan, even started their own restaurants.)

Camp workers have found ways of getting more diversity into migrant diets. Momberg teamed up with a few Syrians to help them acquire Middle Eastern ingredients to replace their Dutch hospital fare with the hummus and breads they missed—until they were mostly finally resettled and he had to move on to different projects. And Imogen Moijie of Better Days for Moria, a young support organization working in a major transit camp on the island of Lesvos, notes that her group tries to design menus with migrants and create communal kitchen spaces for them to make their own food to give them more power over what they’re eating. “These kitchens provide a meaningful activity for camp residents, improves overall nutrition, and are cost-effective,” argues Moijie. Not to mention that they also return agency to migrants.

But perhaps the best approach is the one Turkey’s been using since 2012 and which camps like Za’atari eventually adopted, in which migrants receive vouchers or debit cards that they can just use at well-stocked local stores to purchase whatever they want—down to the exact right type of regional chickpea. Perhaps they can’t get exactly what they want—especially, notes Momberg, in some rural Dutch village. But they can at least have freshness, continual variety, and a direct say in their diets. 

Sadly, not every camp is well-off enough to worry just about food freshness and diversity. When attention and funding fade, notes Kleinschmidt, supplies can take a hit. In Nakivale, a Ugandan camp that has housed peoples from nearby conflicts since 1959 and averages over 50,000 residents, Akite Judith, a project officer with the Finnish Refugee Council, notes that diversity is contingent on nearby crop yields from season to season. Access to food can be intermittent, and all too often the best breakfast to be expected is one bowl of maize or soya bean porridge. Similar shortages have already periodically hit newer camps in Europe and the Middle East, reducing portion size or the amount of cash given to people to shop for their own breakfast.

While we often hear about camps in Europe’s migrant crisis, Kleinschmidt points out that the vast majority of migrants either live in unofficial camps, or clusters within cities. In these settings, there’s less global attention, less accountability for administering or effectively distributing aid, and often residents face the difficulty of paying for rent and utilities as well as their own food. The result is all too often hunger, malnutrition, or, at the very least, poor food diversity.

Azale Gulilat, an emergency coordinator for Jesuit Refugee Services in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, says there are at least 25,000 refugees and more asylum seekers living in the city, where they often live in abject poverty with few aid organizations providing services. Her NGO tries to provide the most vulnerable with basic supplies, but often these folks, beyond official camps, eat twice a day at best; sometimes all they get is breakfast. For the South Sudanese migrants, that means a bit of injera bread and shiro chickpea stew; for the Congolese that means survival rations of ugali—a millet-sorghum-maize flour mix of porridge-to-dough consistency.

Meanwhile, in the unofficial Rohingya camps of Bangladesh, according to Australian social justice reporter Marc Isaacs, who has covered these sites in recent years, a total lack of access to any aid services—save those that enter clandestinely, to jobs, or to agriculture—leaves people scrambling for any meal. “It’s really one of the worst places I’ve ever been to,” he says.

Migrant camps are far too diverse to get a meaningful line on. Conditions can be vastly different based on whether they’re official or not, and how much funding or aid access a group has. As such, people eat vastly different breakfasts from one camp to another. But looking at what they’re eating—how much of it there is and how diverse the selection is day-to-day—can give you a pretty clear window onto what the overall character of that camp is like, and how monotonous or vibrant or deprived a migrant or refugee’s day there might be. And with kids—whom Gulilat notes suffer academically and developmentally if they’re not getting enough food, writ large, or enough dietary diversity—it’s a pretty good indicator of which camps are setting up communities for failure and which are moving them on to new lives in new nations.

With the short- and long-term pain and struggles a poor breakfast can portend in a camp, it’s not only  clear why there are so many food protests in the news; it’s also easy to understand why we ought to move beyond the common perception that we just need to shovel energy into mouths to keep migrants alive, and instead begin to make dedicated efforts to provide them with varied, culturally appropriate, and substantial meals—and especially breakfasts. Because, especially for children in these conditions, breakfast truly can be the most important meal of the day.