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Canada's pandemic recovery urgently needs a national school meal program

The time is ripe to develop federal-provincial/territorial accords towards implementing a national school nutritious meal program
A universal national school meal program would be a geographically equitable way to support families, industries and the long-term vitality of local economies and food systems across Canada.

COVID-19 has exposed yet again the critical importance of Canada catching up with other G7 nations by developing and implementing a national school meal program.

School meal programs meet a variety of children’s critical needs. For example, Dr. Rosana Salvaterra, now Alberta’s deputy chief medical officer of health, and formerly medical officer of health in Peterborough, Ont., has written, “this pandemic has taught us not only about physical health, but also the importance of healthy eating, mental health, social connection and learning for our kids. So, what is one ingredient needed for all of these, and overall student well-being? Healthy school food.”

In 2017, UNICEF ranked Canada 37th out of the 41 wealthiest nations for children’s access to nutritious food. Pre-pandemic, children from all socio-economic backgrounds had poor diets. In the continued wake of the pandemic, stable funding for a national school meal program is needed now more than ever.

Internationally, school meals have shown to be one of the most successful drivers of improved health, education and economic growth, with the equivalent of a $3 to $10 return on every dollar invested.

Canada should move swiftly to join the other G7 countries, and the majority of the members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, with a national school meal program.

Financial promise not yet allocated

In December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tasked both Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Marie-Claude Bibeau, and Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, Karina Gould, with developing a national school food policy and working towards a national school nutritious meal program.

This followed his October 2021 election platform commitment of spending $1 billion over five years to work with “provincial, territorial, municipal, Indigenous partners and stakeholders to develop a national school food policy and work towards a national school nutritious meal program.”

Two ministers now have formal and explicit directives that confirm school meals are now a key federal priority. While it would have been good to also see Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos given this mandate too, it is encouraging that his ministry is mandated to advance the healthy eating strategy, which could be effectively achieved through school food programming.

These mandates begin to lay the basis of the government spending its $1 billion election pledge, which if implemented, would be the largest food policy commitment in Canadian history.

It has been over two years since the federal government first announced its intention to “work toward creating a national school food program” in budget 2019.

This pledge was named as a key program to “help Canadian communities access healthy food,” the first of the four action areas that comprise Canada’s first food policy. School food, however, was the only program in the food policy that did not receive funding.

It is time for our government to act on its pledge.

Students need equal access

My recent analysis of school food programs in Canada, the most comprehensive analysis since the 1990s, found there is a startling disparity and inequitable access to these health-promoting breakfast, snack and lunch programs in schools. School food policy pioneer Mary McKenna and I found that student participation rates vary widely, ranging from five per cent in Alberta to 83 per cent in the Yukon.

The good news is that at least one ministry or department in every province and territory has provided funding for these free school meal programs, and in 2018/19 this totalled over $93 million, making the provinces and territories the largest funder of school meals in Canada.

While this amount may sound like a lot, it only breaks down to an average of $0.48 cents per student per school day. This is inadequate. Only one-fifth of elementary and secondary students can currently participate, due to limited funding.

Next steps

In the near term, I see two feasible and necessary next steps. First, the minister of families, children and social development should start developing federal-provincial/territorial accords, similar to the early learning and child care agreements.

This step is important to enable the development of a robust, sustainable program as opposed to a short-term emergency measure. Through the establishment of shared program principles, this approach would increase the consistency of programming across Canada.

If adequately funded, these accords would be an effective means of comprehensively implementing Canada’s 2019 Food Guide by including students in food preparation and providing complementary food literacy education; efforts supported by departments of education in the United States. Local food procurement targets could be developed by each province and territory, specific to the region and circumstances, to motivate the procurement of local, healthy food in schools.

Second, the minister of agriculture and agri-food could create a dedicated school food infrastructure fund, akin to the Local Food Infrastructure Fund allocated through the food policy.

Schools lack infrastructure

As Jess Haines, professor of applied human nutrition, and I note in the Arrell Food Institute’s Report on School Food in Canada, most schools lack the necessary infrastructure and staffing to support healthy eating and teach food skills in an integrated and comprehensive manner.

In 2020, the Coalition for Healthy School Food called on the federal government for a one-time school food fund of $200 million for infrastructure, such as kitchens and cafeterias, greenhouses, appliances and tools, and eating spaces, as well as pilot projects. In 2014, the United Kingdom did something similar, committing the equivalent of more than $300 million for school kitchens and dining facilities and contributing $2.70 for each meal served.

The investment in school food infrastructure would help enhance existing programs, expand programming as well as provide a substantial boost to our agricultural, food service and construction sectors across the country.

As there are schools in every community, a universal national school meal program would be a geographically equitable way to support families, industries and the long-term vitality of local economies and food systems across Canada.

This is a rare opportunity to influence the eating habits of children across Canada; we should use it.

The Conversation

Amberley T. Ruetz is the Canadian delegate to the International Research Consortium for School Food and Nutrition, the research arm of the Global School Meal Coalition, the Coordinator of the Canadian Association for Food Studies' School Food Working Group, which is a member of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, and is a member of Farm to Cafeteria Canada's National Advisory Council. Amberley has received funding from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) for her doctoral research on farm-to-school programs.

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