This op-ed originally appeared in the Hill Times on March 12, 2o20 under the title “Feds should take steps to create national food program for schools”.
The first reading of Bill C-201: “An Act to Develop a National School Food Program for Children” by MP Don Davies on February 4 was an exciting day for parents and school food advocates across the country. This Bill builds on the government’s declaration of intent to work towards a National School Food Program in the 2019 Budget. Yet school food advocates are still holding their breath, waiting for funding to seal the deal, as similar promises have been made before.
Today, hundreds of thousands of Canadian children have added their voice to the call for a National School Food Program through their participation in the Great Big Crunch – a national day of school food advocacy. The need for such a program is clear; in 2017, UNICEF ranked Canada as 37th out of the 41 wealthiest nations for access to healthy food.
A report released this month by an interdisciplinary group of experts and school advocates identified that a universal, comprehensive school food and nutrition program should include the delivery of healthy meals to all children accompanied by hands-on food literacy curriculum and policies that support the consistent provision of nutritious foods in schools. Only then can a school food program effectively increase food access and instill lifelong healthy eating habits.
The report also identified three key steps needed to make this vision a reality.
Coordinated Policy Efforts
The creation of a universal school food and nutrition program requires funding and coordination from a cross-section of ministries and government agencies at federal-provincial-territorial-municipal levels, including but not limited to Health, Family Services, Children and Youth, Education, Agriculture, Industry, Finance, and Indigenous Affairs. In addition, this intergovernmental collaboration must include political commitments to ensure funding for curriculum development and support, as well as program initiatives and harmonized standards for food and beverages in schools.
This integrated approach would maximize our opportunity to realize important compounding dividends. First, a national school food and nutrition program could catalyze new economic opportunities for farmers and the broader food sector. Estimates suggest that if 30% of the estimated $1.6 billion food budget for a national school food and nutrition program was spent on local agriculture (as mandated in Brazil), the program could contribute $4.8 billion in domestic food purchases and create over 200,000 jobs by 2029.
Second, providing meals, nutrition education, and food skills training that instill healthy eating habits for the next generation has the potential to reduce ballooning healthcare costs. The economic burden of treating preventable, nutrition-related diseases consumes an alarming 67 percent of health care spending in Canada.
As Canadians, we pride ourselves on our publicly-funded health care system, but we do not hold the same values around universal, public access to healthy food, although good nutrition is the foundation of health and well-being. Despite best efforts by busy parents, children are not eating enough of the right kinds of foods. Fewer than one in 10 Canadian children and youth are eating the amount of fruits and vegetables recommended for healthy growth.
As Senator Marty Deacon has noted in the Hill Times, “there remains no better way to change this than through a universal children and youth nutrition program”. As children spend a considerable amount of time in school, a National School Food Program is critical to aligning the aspirational vision of the new Food Guide and the reality of children’s eating habits. Such a program would also have a positive impact on all families, and particularly on women, who invest a significant amount of time preparing food for school.
Implementation of a comprehensive school food and nutrition program requires sufficient and stable funding for human resources and physical infrastructure to teach food skills and to procure, prepare, and serve daily meals at school.
Most elementary schools do not have an industrial kitchen for food service or a cafeteria/ designated eating area. Governmental investments to build kitchens in new schools, retrofits in existing schools and/or centralized food preparation facilities would be required.
Reliance on volunteer labour to conduct a school food program with meal service is insufficient to reliably support a daily program in schools. Therefore, adequately trained teaching and food preparation staff are needed to implement comprehensive school food and nutrition programs.
Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program. It is time for that to change. Will our government follow through with their pledge and commit the necessary funds to establish a national school food and nutrition program, or will Canada continue to lag behind?