As summer winds down and a new school year begins, the conversation about food in schools is once again heating up.
In June, Sen. Art Eggleton tabled a motion calling on the federal government to consult with key stakeholders to develop a cost-shared universal nutrition program across Canada.
He is not the first senator to have made this call. Back in 1997, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance made the recommendation “to create a national school nutrition program” but no action was ever taken. In 2015, the Standing Committee on Social Affairs Science and Technology and the Minister of Health advocated “for childcare facility and school programs related to breakfast and lunch programs… and nutrition literacy courses.”
A universal, national school food program would make sure that all students from kindergarten to Grade 12 have the same access to healthy food in school.
The case for such a program in Canada is already strong. So what needs to happen to make this a reality?
A patchwork of programs
Canada is lagging behind other high-income countries in providing nutritious food to children.
In a UNICEF report published last year, Canada ranked 37th out of 41 countries on access to nutritious food for children. That is below the United States.
One reason for this is Canada’s patchwork of programs that serve only a fraction of kids. Funding for programs comes from several stakeholders, including provincial and territorial governments, municipal governments and charities. This contrasts sharply with school food programs in other countries.
In Brazil for example, food is a constitutional right, which means that a national program feeds 47 million students at 190,000 schools each day.
The benefits are multiple, not only improving student nutrition, health and social development but also providing wider employment. The program supports local food systems and regional economic development, since 30 per cent of food purchased for the program comes from small family farms.
In Italy, school meals are a central part of education about national culture and health. In Rome, 70 per cent of ingredients in school meals are required by law to be organic. These are also local or regional foods, making school meals a local economic growth strategy as well.
In Finland, school lunches, which are free for all students, are the healthiest meal that students eat during the whole day.
It’s time for action
These international examples illustrate how healthy food provision is prioritized elsewhere in the world. This pays off through an impressive return on investment for school food programs — of $3 to $10 for every dollar invested.
Because children’s eating habits are more easily influenced than those of adults, interventions aimed at children are also more likely to have the potential to reduce future health-care costs.
Children spend on average six to seven hours or 50 per cent of their time awake at school, which makes schools the ideal medium for instilling lifelong eating habits in a non-stigmatizing way.
Public support for a national program is growing. Martha O’Connor, former director general of the now defunct Breakfast for Learning Program, affirms that “70 per cent of Canadians believe that child hunger in Canada is more important than national unity or the deficit. Strategic investment in a national school nutrition program is an investment in the future of all Canadians.”
Political will is essential for a national school food program to become a reality. And Eggleton’s motion is catalyzing this important conversation about the state of children’s health in Canada.
Soda tax as revenue
Growing rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease among Canada’s population are unsustainable. The Coalition for Healthy School Food, comprising 40 organizations across Canada, estimates that a national, universal healthy school food program would cost $1.8 billion per year.
The Coalition is calling on the Government of Canada to initially invest $360 million, through provincial and territorial transfers, in healthy school food programs.
The eventual goal would be universal coverage, through a cost-shared model of joint investments from the federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments, as well as some investment from not-for-profits and parents where applicable.
The United Kingdom recently implemented a promising strategy of directing the revenue from a national sugary drinks levy to fund school food programs. Diabetes Canada, the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Childhood Obesity Foundation are making the same recommendation for Canada.
A soda tax could produce $1.7 billion in annual revenue for Canada, just short of the coalition’s estimate to fund a national school food program.
Given the burden that chronic, diet-related diseases already place on the Canadian health care system — a cost estimated at $190 billion each year — a $1.8-billion investment in the health of our next generation is surely a small price to pay.
The cost of implementing a national school food program will pay for itself through improved mental health, learning and other health outcomes.
Schools have a strong history of successful public health intervention, and a national school food program is a critical investment that we all can support. It’s a no-brainer.