Lessons from COVID-19: The Importance of a National School Food Program by Sterling Stutz & Eleonora Gagliardi

Reading time 5 min

Speaking time 9 min

Statistic from PROOF, Graphic By Bahandimedia.ca

Access to affordable and healthy food is an issue affecting many families across Canada with as many as 1 in 6 Canadian children affected by household food insecurity. Despite this pressing concern, Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program delivering healthy meals to children during school-time hours; putting the onus of students’ nutrition onto parents and caregivers without adequate funding, programming, and nutritional support or guidelines from the government. Community groups and advocacy organizations such as the Coalition for Healthy School Food, are encouraging the federal government to create a universal,  healthy, and cost-shared national school food program. 

Over the past months, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that Canada’s patchwork approach to school nutrition programs is inadequate to support children’s health, nutrition, and academic success. Food security, already a pressing issue across Canada, has now been made even more urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic as low-income people are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, demonstrating the immediate need to implement innovative policy approaches to ending food insecurity.  

Programs are not just about getting kids food when they are hungry, they also increase the consumption of healthy foods. Access to and consumption of healthy foods for children and youth was already a concern ahead of the pandemic with children ages 8-14 consuming more than 50% of their daily energy intake from ultra-processed food. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, surveys demonstrate that Canadians are increasingly consuming unhealthy food which is worrying experts including  Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, are worried about the reported increased consumption of junk food during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

School food programs, such as breakfast and mid-day snack delivery, ensure that students are fed and therefore better able to concentrate throughout the day. These programs have proven to be successful, as participating students are likely to score higher on educational assessments and are more likely to graduate high school. Despite this evidence, programs across Canada’s schools and school districts vary and are mostly delivered through partnerships with nonprofit organizations due to the lack of a uniform approach.   

The various ways that school food programs have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic is evidence of this patchwork approach. In mid-March, when schools across Canada were closed because of concerns of COVID-19 community transmission, almost all school food programs were indefinitely suspended without notice or significant public discussion by elected leaders. COVID-19 is exacerbating the vulnerability that food-insecure families face due to forced economic closures and limited social assistance programs. With the added school closures, families who relied upon those free or low-cost meals had to find alternative means of filling the nutritional gap normally provided by school meal programs.  

Provinces and territories have implemented various approaches to continuing access to school food for students; these approaches not only differ between jurisdictions but are often community-specific and are typically defined by the needs of local stakeholders. Agencies and organizations that provide school food have had to quickly adapt to changing public health information and protocols in order to keep students, staff, and families safe. The Coalition for Healthy School Food has compiled a list of media articles detailing the work of these community organizations across Canada.  

In British Columbia, when Education Minister Fleming announced the cancellation of schools, he made a quick remark that the government was liaising with school boards regarding essential services, including school food programs. Now, in Victoria, food banks are struggling to meet the increased demand as they are being looked at to fill the gaps in a way they were not needed or expected to before.  

In Alberta, Premier Kenny announced that funding for school food programs would not be disrupted due to the pandemic; regardless, the associated program closures because of COVID-19 was swift. The Alberta government continued funding food programs, run by local school districts, as per normal and provided an extra $3 million in funding distributed between nine communities in the province. Despite requesting that programming continue as per normal, after two weeks of cancelled classes it was not clear how even the largest school boards would continue their school meal programs, demonstrating a significant disruption in service delivery.  

A very different approach was taken in Newfoundland and Labrador where the provincial government is working with stakeholders and partners during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that food is being supplied to those who need it during this difficult time. To accomplish this, the provincial government has partnered with various school food associations such as Kids Eat Smart Foundation and the School Lunch Association, ensuring that some of the province’s most vulnerable individuals are being fed. 

Nunavut is the only region in Canada that did not identify a COVID-19 case during the first wave of infection; despite this, the school was cancelled in the territory out of an abundance of caution. With high rates of food insecurity (in large part due to the legacy of ongoing colonization) it was unacceptable to some teachers that programs were suspended without adequate alternatives for students so teachers in both Arctic Bay and Iqaluit themselves worked to provide bagged lunches for students during the pandemic.  

These differing approaches demonstrate the need for a national school food program that is prioritized by all levels of government. While programs must be community-based, allowing for programming to reflect the needs of local communities; the gaps in policy between jurisdictions need to be addressed to support students and their families. This would allow students and their communities an alternative to this patchwork approach to accessing healthy and nutritious food.  

The creation of a school food program is not enough – it needs to be enacted upon and protected through deliberate policy action and championship by key decision-makers in consultation with local communities.  School food is built into Canada’s 2019 National Food Policy as the country’s first-ever food policy, and includes a commitment of the federal government to work with the provinces and territories to develop a national school food program; however, the school program has not yet been implemented. This shows that school food programs fill a crucial need and that despite this evidence, little motivation exists in policy circles to implement the needed program.  

School meal programs ensure that every student has access to healthy food and is not hungry during the school day. This concern is even more significant during the COVID-19 pandemic with school schedules disrupted and students learning from home. The inability to consistently access food programs such as school food makes it even more difficult for families, especially those who were already food insecure, to make ends meet. School food is an essential service that needs to be a priority in how governments consider services provided at school. Ultimately, this shows that as a nation, not enough focus is placed on the importance of food, and if we are to move forward, school food programs need a comprehensive federal approach. 

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