Hectic mornings of rushing around packing school lunches for kids could actually become a thing of the past for Canadian parents.
In the recent federal budget, Canada has finally declared its intention to work towards a national school food program with the provinces and territories.
The pledge is embedded in the new national food policy, although the government has not yet committed any funds for the program.
As researchers focused on student nutrition, wellness and national and provincial food policy, we see a national school food program is a no-brainer.
Food at school can improve children’s health and academic outcomes while creating economic opportunities for local, sustainable agriculture. To ensure this, however, the federal government needs to establish food procurement criteria and regulations to protect against corporate food and beverage from gaining entry into schools.
In many countries, parents’ main focus in the morning is getting their kids out of the door on time because schools handle lunch as part of a larger health, education and economic strategy.
In France, school lunches are part of the school day, not a break from it. Children are served a four-course meal while sitting at a group table with a supervisor who teaches them about nutrition, healthy eating and table manners.
In Italy, school meals are locally sourced and certified organic, with special meals provided for children with food allergies, intolerances and religious restrictions. School lunch menus are sent home on a weekly basis to help parents avoid overlap at home.
In Japan, where food education is mandated by law, lunches are cooked in school. In an effort to reinforce a culture of self-sufficiency students serve one another and when lunch is done everyone helps clean up.
In Brazil, school food is part of a national and comprehensive food strategy that integrates education, agriculture, health and food security while supporting family farming.
Health crisis spans economic divides
The last time the federal government seriously discussed implementing a national school food program was during the Second World War when the government rejected a school lunch program. Instead, Canada decided to provide a family allowance designed to ensure families had enough income to buy food for their children.
Since then, the pervasiveness of diet-related diseases among children may make today’s youth the first generation to have sicker, shorter lives than their parents as found by a House of Commons standing committee on health in 2007.
Children spend a considerable amount of time at school for well over a decade of their lives, so schools are the ideal medium for fostering and reinforcing a lifetime of healthy eating habits. Preventing chronic diseases through improving nutrition among children and youth should, therefore, be a priority.
A national, health-promoting school food program is essential for Canada. With adequate funding and national standards, it can be the powerful health-promotion program needed to reverse our current health crisis that spans socio-economic divides.
Most provinces in Canada have some form of a school food program (breakfast, snack and to a lesser degree lunch), but the type of program and quality of food served varies across the country. Existing programs largely rely on charitable funding because if there is any provincial and municipal support, it often only covers a fraction of the cost.
A national research team that my co-author was part of recommended six key characteristics to guide a national school food program in Canada. Such a program would be:
1. Universal and offered to all students at no cost or subsidized cost, and administered in a non-stigmatizing manner.
2. Health Promoting, thereby focused on providing whole foods, specifically vegetables and fruits.
3. Respectful of local conditions and needs, serving culturally appropriate foods.
4. Connected to communities, supporting local food producers when possible.
5. Multi-Component and integrated with curricula to incorporate nutrition education and hands-on food preparation for the development of food skills.
6. Sustainable and so receiving ongoing funding, staffing and training along with regular monitoring and evaluation.
A national school food program isn’t just an expense; it’s an economic opportunity. Internationally, school food programs have an impressive return on investment — three dollars to $10 for every dollar invested — including the creation of new jobs.
School food could also be a fruitful emerging economic activity in Canada as it is in the United States as my research aims to show. Canada would have the chance to develop a made-in-Canada school food economic growth strategy, akin to what Brazil or Italy has pursued.
The economic burden and preventable cost of nutrition-related disease in Canada is estimated at $13.8 billion annually. Treating chronic disease already consumes an alarming 67 per cent of all direct health care spending. Such expenditure levels could cripple Canada’s universal health care system. Yet, over 30,000 deaths could be averted or delayed annually if our diets complied with dietary recommendations, particularly for eating more fruit and vegetables.
Right now, more than 3,200 signatures have been put to a petition to the Minister of Health for the implementation of a universal healthy school food program whose cost is shared with the federal government.
This is an official e-petition to the House of Commons — that means it was made available online on the House of Commons website after it was introduced to Parliament by MP Julie Dabrusin on behalf of Debbie Field, co-ordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Food.
The promise of a national school food program is an important step forward for Canada. The provision of adequate funding will ensure that it benefits all Canadian children.
An investment in a national school food program is an investment in children today and the leaders of tomorrow.
Amberley T. Ruetz, PhD Candidate in Geography and Arrell Food Scholar, University of Guelph and Sara FL Kirk, Professor of Health Promotion; Scientific Director of the Healthy Populations Institute, Dalhousie University