Canada is the Only G7 Country Without a National School Food Program. Advocates Say It’s Time

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Morning snack time is underway at St. Roch Catholic School in Toronto, where kids line up in orderly fashion, approaching a bin on the teacher’s desk. They grab small bags of Cheerios, juicy oranges and tubes of flavoured yogurt and sit back down at their desks to munch away. 

It’s an important ritual for the young students — they say the small, free meal helps them get through their day.

“If you don’t get a snack, sometimes you may get hungry or your stomach may hurt. So it’s good that you get a snack,” said Danna Rinten, a Grade 5 student.

Other students said that a snack helped them keep up with their schoolwork and their activities or gave them nutrients if they had to leave the house without breakfast.

Behind the scenes, volunteers are working hard to organize the mid-morning meal. It’s just one of many community-run school food programs in Canada that operate in the absence of a national program — one that advocates say is sorely needed.

A class full of young students sit at their desks.
Students at St. Roch Catholic School in Toronto eat Cheerios, oranges and yogurt during their morning snack time. (CBC)

“It’s heartbreaking when sometimes the kids come in and they say ‘Miss Polo, I’m hungry.’ Like, ‘I don’t have a snack for the whole day,'” said Janet Polo, a nutrition co-ordinator at St. Roch who oversees the meal program. 

St. Roch’s program has three streams of funding: donations from parents, contributions from the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s charity The Angel Foundation and a grant from the President’s Choice Children’s Charity.

Annually, the Angel Foundation receives $4.3 million from Toronto Public Health, $2.1 million from Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services and $2.7 million from fundraising and other donations. They fund about 12 million meals every year, their executive director John Yan told CBC News.

But organizers are finding it’s getting harder to stretch that money out, especially in designing a nutritious menu that keeps allergies and other dietary restrictions in mind.

“I have to see [who] gives me the bagel cheaper than the other companies so I can order more,” Polo said, noting that not only have prices gone up, the quality of the food has reduced, too.

Canada is the only country in the G7 that doesn’t have a national school food program or national standards, according to the Breakfast Club of Canada. That means that while every province has different needs, there isn’t an aligned approach to feeding students across the assortment of existing programs.

Researchers say that as high inflation affects food prices, more children need access to these programs — but community groups say they need stable funding from the federal government to keep everyone fed.

Building existing programs into the future

A person's hands are shown as they pick through a pile of oranges.
A volunteer sorts through bags of oranges in preparation for morning snack time at St. Roch Catholic School in Toronto. When filled, the tubs are distributed between classrooms. (CBC)

According to Statistics Canada, one in four Canadian kids experience what’s called “food insecurity” — when a person can’t access a quality diet or enough food, or aren’t certain that they can. Meanwhile, 33 per cent of food bank users in Canada are children, according to Food Banks Canada.

A study by researchers in Canada, Chile, Australia, the U.K. and Mexico, published last year and based on 2019 data, examined school meal programs in countries around the world — including Canada, which it noted relies on community organizations and local programs to provide free and subsidized meals to kids.

“The current findings suggest these initiatives are ineffective substitutes for comprehensive national programs,” the study said.

While many other countries established national school food programs in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Canadian government argued that families could instead rely on the family allowance program, which ended in the early 1990s and was replaced by the Child Tax Benefit.

After launching the country’s first food policy in 2019, the Liberal government’s 2021 re-election platform included a promise that it would invest $1 billion in a national school meal program over five years. Still in the early stages, a public consultation was held earlier this year on what a potential program would look like.

A woman sits in her office with a computer and a bookcase behind her.
Rachel Engler-Stringler, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, says additional support for existing school meal programs is needed before a national program can be built. (CBC)

Additional support for existing school meal programs is the first step toward a national program, said Rachel Engler-Stringer, a professor in the department of community health and epidemiology in the college of medicine at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

“Provincial governments should be making their own investments and then going to the federal government and saying, ‘Look, we’re making investments in school food programs, we want you to match [those funds],'” she said.

“That’s how we will build the program that we can have into the future.”

The ideal school food program would likely have a main dish for breakfast or lunch prepared in a centralized industrial kitchen, which would then get distributed to several schools to save costs, Engler-Stringer said. Then, at the school level, smaller snacks and sides, like fresh fruits and vegetables, would be prepared to go with the main meal.

A school meal program in a big city couldn’t be run the same way as a rural or Indigenous-run program, taking into account different religious or cultural customs, she added.

“The communities have to have control over what kinds of programs work for those communities.”

Several provinces are already investing in existing infrastructure, like B.C., which announced $214 million over three years toward school food programs. Meanwhile, Prince Edward Island’s school food program, Bon Appetit, offers all students from kindergarten to Grade 12 a lunch option daily for a small fee. 

WATCH | B.C. expands its school lunch program but the rest of the country lags behind:

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Duration1:56British Columbia is spending $214 million in the next three years to build and expand school food programs, but experts say Canada is far behind other G7 countries when it comes to feeding children at school.

Engler-Stringer said an approach that emphasizes nutritious meals for everyone, rather than targeting children from low-income families, would lessen the stigma associated with school meals and improve the diets of Canadian children.

The converging high costs of living, groceries and housing have changed the financial reality of many families, meaning more children across the socioeconomic spectrum would benefit from these programs. 

“There are excellent examples that exist in Canada already, but they’re small in scale, they’re operating with staff who are basically passionate about what they do and if somebody can’t do it anymore, then those programs may or may not continue,” said Engler-Stringer.

Funding would help sustain volunteers

A man wearing a gray button down in shown in an industrial kitchen.
Rod Allen, who is president of the board of directors for Nourish Cowichan in Duncan, B.C., says the program relies heavily on a small, dedicated core group of volunteers. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Rod Allen is president of the board of directors for one of those smaller programs — Nourish Cowichan in Duncan, B.C. The program serves breakfast, lunch and snacks to more than 1,300 children in the Cowichan Valley every day, a figure Allen says will grow to 1,600 in the next few weeks.

“If they knew how much squash went into their chocolate chip cookies, they’d be shocked,” Allen said.

The program is funded by corporate and community donations and grants, but that funding model is proving unsustainable as their catchment area expands.

‘A lot of effort’

“We will outgrow the funding capacity and so [we’re] really looking and really interested in [the] movement for a national food program,” he said. Plus, with only a few paid staff, Nourish Cowichan relies heavily on a small, dedicated core group of volunteers.

“A lot of effort goes into finding volunteers, training them and so on. So if there was a little bit more dependable financial support, it might be possible to provide stronger infrastructure,” 

“The story we like to tell is that we’re a middle-class nation with great social networks and a social net,” said Allen. “I think that has been true, but … that story has allowed us to ignore so many parts of where that net has been failing over time.”

Large plastic tubs of soup are shown in an industrial kitchen.
School food supplied by Nourish Cowichan is prepared in an industrial kitchen at Ecole Mont Prevost. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

‘It is not science fiction or rocket science’

Debbie Field, a co-ordinator for Montreal-based Coalition for Healthy School Food, said that the seeds of a national program have already been planted.

“We have something, but we need the federal government to make it consistent and grow it because right now the affordability crisis is really important,” said Field.

“Every province and territory now funds school food programs. So we have a good system in place where money from the province or territory goes to school districts and directly to schools.”

LISTEN | What does a national school meal program look like as grocery costs soar?: 

The Current19:55Reconsidering a national school lunch program amid soaring food costsThe high cost of food has renewed the push for a national school lunch program in Canada. Matt Galloway talks with Celina Stoyles, executive director of the Kids Eat Smart Foundation in Newfoundland and Labrador; and Debbie Field, co-ordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Food Canada.

Field said that the federal government can make a national school food program happen by stabilizing community programs, funding them so that they can sustain their operations and then growing them until there is a universal program.

“It is not science fiction or rocket science.”

Jenna Sudds, the federal minister of families, children and social development, said in a statement to CBC News that the government plans to share a report detailing the results of its public consultation soon. 

“The report recognizes that there was overwhelming support from participants for a national school food policy,” the statement said. More than 5,000 Canadians and 130 organizations participated in the consultation.

Source : CBC