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Why Canada Needs a Universal School Food Program

July 27, 2020

Author: Lynn Roblin, MSc., RD, Senior Policy Consultant at Nutrition Connections

Why does Canada need a Universal Healthy School Food Program?

Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program and sadly ranked 37th out of the world’s 41 wealthiest nations for access to healthy food (1). The implementation of a Universal Healthy School Food Program is in the best interest of Canadian children as it would support their health, well-being and education equitably.

To date, none of the Canadian provinces or territories have implemented a universal school food and nutrition program. That is not to say that food and nutrition programs are not being offered. The programs typically offered operate in high-need schools and communities with government funding, providing some but not all children access to the service. To ensure the health of all children and youth, a successful school food and nutrition program in Canada needs to be universal.

COVID-19 has heightened awareness of food insecurity and the role that school nutrition programs play in supporting children with nutritious meals and snacks at school. A Statistics Canada survey conducted in May 2020 revealed that food insecurity in households with children was much higher (19.2%) than in households with no children (12.2%) (2). Canadians living in households with children were more likely to be worried about food running out before there was money to buy more and having difficulty affording to eat balanced meals (2).

What is important now is getting kids back in school as soon as it is safe to do so and transitioning from the immediate COVID-19 response to a longer-term well planned comprehensive Universal Healthy School Food Program that can promote the health and well-being of students, while providing support for families and a stimulus for economic recovery in Canada (3).

What aspects are important when implementing a Universal Healthy School Food Program?

In a report by Nutrition Connections, “Policies that Influence Food Literacy among Children and Youth in Ontario”, school food and nutrition programs are important as they provide an enabling environment for healthy learning (4). These programs offer repeated and sustained exposure to foods consistent with a healthy eating pattern and seek to overcome barriers to the expression of healthy preferences, such as cost and skill (4).

Nutrition Connections conducted a survey in May 2020 looking to gather expert insight into policy, research, and programming priorities related to food literacy. The highest-ranking policy priorities identified by respondents were for nutrition education/curriculum in schools and a universal food and nutrition program including food literacy. Further, the need to provide food literacy as part of mandatory curriculum in schools and implementing a universal school food program, as promised in the 2019 federal budget, were among the top policy priorities identified in a food literacy forum organized by Nutrition Connections in June 2020 involving 50 researchers, policymakers, educators and program facilitators.

The Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph also did some work in their area and released a report advising that during the planning and implementation of a universal school food program, it is imperative that a comprehensive approach be taken (5). The Institute proposed that a universal school food program should include the provision of healthy food in combination with curriculum, education, policy, and family and community involvement (5).  The Institute outlines that the benefits of a universal program are many, including: providing children with healthy foods while at school, improving learning outcomes, increasing food literacy, providing family support, reducing food insecurity, and promoting food sustainability and local food systems economic development (5). In addition, a preliminary study released by the University of Guelph suggests that the implementation of a national program could contribute $4.8 billion to the local economy by 2029 if 30% was spent on local food purchases, and has the potential to create 207,700 new jobs (6).

Now is the time to build sustainable food system resilience, written by the Canadian Commission for UNESCO and UNESCO Chair on Food, Biodiversity, and Sustainability Studies, discusses some key policy proposals, including how a Universal Healthy School Food Program can be a conduit to change food insecurity, food literacy and long-term health outcomes (7).  A universal school food program can be a source of employment as well as utilizing and teaching children about healthy foods produced in Canada (7). Brazil, for example has instituted local purchasing policies for school food programs that help keep farms viable, improve the health of families, and create good, skilled jobs in food processing and distribution (7). Canada could also follow the lead of countries like Japan who have integrated food-based education into the school experience (7). For example, food education in the classroom is complemented by school lunches prepared on-site and students eat together (7).

Where do we go from here?

Nutrition Connections, a key program of the Ontario Public Health Association is a proud member of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, a group of over 125 organizations from the non-profit sector across Canada advocating for a national school food program. Together, our organizations are seeking an investment by the federal government in a cost-shared Universal Healthy School Food Program that will enable all students in Canada to have access to healthy meals at school every day. Our aim is to ensure the program is comprehensive providing food literacy as an integral component along with food provision to ensure the health and well-being of children.

We are excited to announce that Nutrition Connections will be hosting a webinar in the early Fall of 2020 on Why Canada needs a Universal Healthy School Food Program. Subscribe to our Monthly Newsletter to get the latest updates!

References

  1. CISION News Wire. 2020. UNICEF Canada Supports Calls for a National School Food Program. Retrieved from: https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/unicef-canada-supports-calls-for-a-national-school-food-program-883821589.html#:~:text=Publicly%20funded%20school%20meals%20are,a%20national%20school%20food%20program.
  2. Statistics Canada. 2020. Food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, May 2020. Retrieved from: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00039-eng.htm
  3. Webb, C & Field, D. 2020. Transitioning from the Immediate COVID-19 Response to a National School Food Program. The Coalition for Healthy School Food. Retrieved from: https://www.healthyschoolfood.ca/post/transitioning-from-the-immediate-covid-19-response-to-a-national-school-food-program
  4. Nutrition Connections. 2019. Policies that Influence Food Literacy among Children and Youth in Ontario. Nutrition Connections. Retrieved from: https://nutritionconnections.ca/resources/policies-that-influence-food-literacy-among-children-and-youth-in-ontario/
  5. Haines, J & Ruetz, A. 2020. School Food and Nutrition: Comprehensive, Integrated Food and Nutrition Programs in Canadian Schools: A Healthy and Sustainable Approach. The Arrell Food Institute. Retrieved from: https://nutritionconnections.ca/resources/comprehensive-integrated-food-and-nutrition-programs-in-canadian-schools-a-healthy-and-sustainable-approach/
  6. Ruetz, A & Fraser, D. 2019. National School Food Program a short-term opportunity for jobs creation and economic growth. Canadian Science Policy Centre. Retrieved from: https://sciencepolicy.ca/news/national-school-food-program-short-term-opportunity-jobs-creation-and-economic-growth-0
  7. Canadian Commission for UNESCO and UNESCO Chair on Food, Biodiversity, and Sustainability Studies. 2020. Now is the time to build sustainable food system resilience. Retrieved from: https://ipolitics.ca/2020/07/15/now-is-the-time-to-build-sustainable-food-system-resilience/