Canada’s need for a national school food program grows amid pandemic

Canada is the only country in the G7 that does not have a national school food program or national standards, according to the Breakfast Club of Canada. Advocates say this is a major gap that needs to be addressed, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated food insecurity and health disparities among children and families.

The Breakfast Club of Canada is one of the members of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, which has been lobbying for years for a universal, cost-shared and flexible national school food program. The coalition says that such a program would ensure that all students have access to nutritious meals at school, regardless of their income, location or background.

The coalition also says that a national school food program would have multiple benefits, such as improving academic performance, reducing obesity and chronic diseases, supporting local food systems and creating jobs.

Canada’s need for a national school food program grows amid pandemic
Canada’s need for a national school food program grows amid pandemic

Federal government plans to roll out a national school food policy

In the 2022 federal budget, the government announced its intention to develop and implement a pan-Canadian school food policy in collaboration with provinces, territories and key partners. The initiative is part of the government’s commitment to support the health and well-being of children and youth.

In November 2022, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) launched month-long public consultations to get input from Canadians on what they would like to see in the national school food policy. And over the past six months, Ottawa has held conversations and roundtables with diverse stakeholders from across Canada, according to ESDC.

“While school meal programs exist in some form in all provinces and territories and in many Indigenous communities, we know that existing programming only serves roughly 21 per cent of all school-aged children,” said Mila Roy, a spokesperson for ESDC.

So the aim is to build on the existing framework in collaboration with provinces, territories and key partners so that the national school food policy reflects regional and local needs, she said.

However, it is not clear yet when the plan will be unveiled, what it will include, or how much money will go into it.

Community programs struggle to meet demand with insufficient funds

In the meantime, community-run school food programs are trying to fill the gap with limited resources and funding. These programs vary widely in terms of their scope, quality and sustainability, depending on where they operate and who supports them.

One example is St. Roch Catholic School in Toronto, where kids line up in orderly fashion every morning to grab small bags of Cheerios, juicy oranges and tubes of flavoured yogurt from a bin on the teacher’s desk. The program has three streams of funding: donations from parents, contributions from the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s charity The Angel Foundation and a grant from the President’s Choice Children’s Charity.

But organizers are finding it harder to stretch that money out, especially in designing a nutritious menu that keeps allergies and other dietary restrictions in mind.

“It’s heartbreaking when sometimes the kids come in and they say ‘Miss Polo, I’m hungry.’ Like, ‘I don’t have a snack for the whole day,’” said Janet Polo, a nutrition co-ordinator at St. Roch who oversees the meal program.

Another example is Nourish Cowichan, a charity that runs a school food program for 21 schools in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. It currently supports about 1,300 students but expects that number to keep rising as more families face financial hardships due to the pandemic.

The charity relies on donations from individuals, businesses and organizations, as well as some funding from the provincial government. But it says it needs more stable and long-term funding to meet the growing demand and provide healthy meals to students.

“We’re not asking for handouts. We’re asking for investment in our children,” said Fatima da Silva, executive director of Nourish Cowichan.

What could a national school food program look like?

Advocates say that a national school food program should not follow a “cookie cutter” approach with a rigid menu to be served everywhere in the country. Rather, it should accommodate local needs, concerns and capacities.

Debbie Field, coordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, said that Canada already has a food guide that recommends half a plate of fruits and vegetables, a quarter plate of proteins and a quarter of whole grain foods with a glass of water. She said this guide provides a good basis for the school program, but it should also allow for regional variations and cultural preferences.

For instance, she said that some schools in northern communities may want to include traditional foods like seal meat or caribou in their menus. Or some schools may want to offer vegetarian or halal options to their students.

Field also said that a national school food program should involve students, parents, teachers and local farmers in its planning and implementation. She said this would create a sense of ownership and engagement among the stakeholders, as well as support the local economy and environment.

She pointed to some successful examples of school food programs in other countries, such as Brazil, Finland and Japan, where students are involved in growing, preparing and serving food, and where local and organic ingredients are prioritized.

Field said that Canada has a lot to learn from these models, and that it is time for the federal government to take action and make a national school food program a reality.

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