Amend education-related acts, strategies and policy frameworks to include food
Most education acts and many policy frameworks and strategies related to school health, environmental education and critical literacy do not explicitly name requirements related to food, eating environments and nutrition, even though they fit logically in most of the policies and strategies. Ironically, some of the policies provide guidance to more specific regulations that address food, eating environments and nutrition. This gap between governance tools would not necessarily be problematic except that many policies and instruments are voluntary. As a result, they contribute to an implementation gap, that policies and related instruments do not effectively produce change at the school and teacher level.
So, there two actions required to create more consistent and coherent national treatment of these issues:
1. Broadly name requirements related to food, eating environments and nutrition in education acts, policy documents and strategies (all provinces). For example, under Ontario's Education Act, the Minister of Education has the authority to put in place policy to establish nutrition standards for food and beverages and any ingredient contained in them when provided on school premises or connected to school-related activity, and to require school boards to comply (sections 29.3 and 29.4). This should be amended to expand the policy intervention so that it includes establishing healthy eating environments. All education acts in Canada should have comparable language and this amendment (see also Improve School Food Standards)
2. Require mandatory implementation (5 provinces that do not currently have fully mandatory obligations) . This is achieved through language as in #1.
3. Monitor implementation at the local level to assure compliance. Compliance appears to be a general problem as most of the mechanisms focus on financial compliance, enrollment audits, operational performance, and very specific student performance measures. Given that, some new measures for determining non-financial policy compliance are required It is also likely that Ministry of Education policy units do not have sufficient compliance staff with the skills to monitor what are really "soft" compliance metrics (as opposed to the hard ones associated with financial metrics).
Improve school food standards (adapted from Bas, 2018)
International reviews conclude that changing the school food eating environment is associated with healthier food choices and intakes (Cohen et al., 2014; Greenhalgh, Kristjansson, & Robinson, 2007).
A 2007 study to evaluate school nutrition policies across Canada based on “Canada’s Food Guide” (2007) and the US Institute of Medicine’s “Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools” (2007) found the results were poor: a B for Alberta’s draft guidelines was the highest grade, none of the territories had any standards, and Ontario received an F (Leo, 2007). In general, studies found that school food and beverages, especially from vending machines, was high-fat, high-sugar,with low nutrient-density (Taylor, Evers & McKenna, 2005). Since then, all provinces and the territories have started creating better guidelines and / or regulating food sold in schools (Martorell, 2017). These standards typically apply to vending machines, fundraisers, cafeterias and sometimes school food programs (see Substitution). Six provinces have implemented junk food bans.
In Ontario, school food standards are the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and the Ministry of Child and Youth Services. The “Healthy Food for Schools Act, 2008” modified the Education Act to allow the Ministry to regulate food in schools. Out of this came regulations on trans fats in foods available in the school and Policy/Program No. 150 (PPM150) “School Food and Beverage Policy, 2010” which regulates food sold on school premises, all of which is further regulated under Regulation 562, “Food Premises, 1990” under the Health Protection and Promotion Act. PPM150 commits the Ontario government to “making schools healthier places for students” since a “healthy school environment enhances student learning and success, and enhances students’ social and emotional well-being”. The policy is limited to setting standards for food and beverages sold in publicly funded elementary and secondary schools. Foods and beverages that “contain few or no essential nutrients and/or contain high amounts of fat, sugar, and/or sodium” are not permitted for sale, items that “contain slightly higher amounts of fat, sugar and/or sodium” can make up to 20 percent of foods and beverages sold, while a minimum of 80 percent of foods and beverages must be healthier options.
NS brought in new standards in 2006 and intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and energy have both decreased, with improved dietary intake (Fung et al., 2013).
In NB, doctors and dieticians assessed food in schools for kids with lunch money. Although there are some stellar examples of school food innovations, they found that only 27% of the menus examined (>100) were clearly consistent with the provincial policy falling under the Education Act (Policy 711, Healthier School Food Environment) (Make Menus Matter). While Policy 711 is a model for other provinces to pursue, it is only partially implemented.
However, there remains unevenness in the adoption and application of these standards. Not all food is included, the standards do not necessarily apply to all age groups. Only in Ontario and MB are standards mandatory. Unfortunately, monitoring and enforcement has also been exceedingly weak, with ample evidence that schools in many provinces are doing a poor job of complying with the standards (Food for Life Report, 2019)
Bas' (2018) study of school food environments in Toronto's day cares and Full Day Kindergarten (FDK) program found that the food environment in the day care was superior to the schools. For elementary children, the quality of the food is only part of the issue. The meal time setting, the interaction with adults, the opportunity to socialize, the level of calm, and the sequencing of the food are all important factors that shape the school food environment. The Ontario legislation governing nutrition in day cares is more robust than what exists in the amendments to the Education Act (see the regulations of the Child Care and Early Years Act, 2014), but her study identifies important changes that should be made to both PPM150 and the child care regulations.
So, the core improvements to standards include:
- Make them mandatory. Only two provinces currently meet that requirement.
- Have junk food bans in all provinces. Only 6 currently meet that requirement. Exemptions should be restricted. Parents have been critical about exemptions from Bill 8 and PPM150 on “special event days” (Healthy Kids Panel, 2012).
- In each province, use the regulations of Ontario's Child Care and Early Years Act as the foundation for food standards in elementary school, but augment those regulations with specific requirements identified by Bas (2018). These include: a) making the eating periods an official part of the school day; b) trained Early Child Educators (ECEs) involved in supporting children during the eating period; c) family style eating; d) sequenced eating when meals are provided by the school; e) once implemented, guidance to parents on the contents of packed meals to fit with this healthy eating environment approach.
Rebuild food infrastructure in schools
School gardens (adapted from Harrison, 2014; Wever, 2015)
A significant body of literature identifies the value of school gardens. They have positive impacts on “(a) personal, social, physical, and moral development that also addresses self-concept, self-esteem, and motivation […] (b) positive environmental attitude and empathy […] (c) increased food literacy and healthy eating habits […] and (d) school bonding, parental involvement, and formation of community” (Williams and Dixon, 2013:212). Positive academic impacts of garden-based learning have also been found across a wide range of traditional subjects in the arts and sciences (Lieberman and Hoody, 1998; Williams and Dixon, 2013) and greater enthusiasm for learning (Lieberman and Hoody, 1998; Blair, 2009). School food gardens have also improved the efficacy of nutrition programs and greater consumption of fruits and vegetables (McAleese and Rankin 2007; Morris and Zidenberg-Cherr 2002). Kuo and Taylor (2004) found green spaces contributed to reduced attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and there are also reports of increased happiness and reduced stress (Chawla et al., 2014). They also provide options for physical exercise (Dyment and Bell, 2008a).
School gardens have long been promoted by European and American education theorists, from Friedrich Fröbel (1782-1852), the man credited with creating “kindergarten”, a children’s program largely centred around gardening, to John Dewey (1859-1952), who wrote frequently on school gardens and the need to blur the boundaries between classroom learning and contact with the natural environment. They were very common in Canada until post WWII (Nowatschin 2014).
In the modern era, most schools do not have school gardens. Some have had them and they've been dismantled. Slowly, they are being installed or reinstalled and take a variety of forms, from growing pots in the classroom, to windowsill gardens, greenhouses and traditional garden plots on the school ground. Farm to Cafeteria Canada has estimated that 569 schools in Canada have gardens or greenhouses (this does not include all the indoor growing that may be occurring in classrooms), significant but a very small percentage of the schools in the country. There are, however, numerous challenges.
- Lack of training in garden design and operation
- Lack of time and resources to properly prepare units that take advantage of gardens
- Gardens depend on interested and willing teachers and their efforts are typically viewed as extra and voluntary contributions; challenging to find sufficient volunteers, whether parents or teachers
- Insufficient support from administrators and caretakers, negative attitudes regarding stepping outside the regular curriculum boxes
- Access to inputs and equipment
- Suitable spaces within or beside the school
- Summer maintenance
The following strategies are key to their expansion.
Policy - Each province must name "a garden in every school" as an aspirational goal in environmental education policies and core curriculum documents, recognizing that the form the garden takes will depend on school resources and constraints. With proper implementation, this generates administrative buy in, and also addresses a key cultural hurdle in many schools, that outdoor education is not really teaching. Many schools will need to start small, with indoor growing and expand as resources permit and the strategies named here are implemented.
Training - Most schools do not have gardeners. Typically, a few teachers and parents are leads. But many do not have strong gardening skills, especially in this kind of institutional setting with particularly educational requirements. But many NGOs and social enterprises offer training and consultation on garden design and implementation. The two key obstacles to improved training are often: a) getting approval as a school and school board partner; b) funding the training or consultation so that it is more than just individual teachers paying out of their own pockets (see funding). With "a garden in every school" policy in place, the first obstacle should be reduced (as long as the implementation gap discussed above is also addressed).
Curriculum supports - although school boards have curriculum advisors and curriculum documents, advisors typically have little training in food and documents are not typically about food, or the place of food in a wide range of subjects. Many NGOs, however, have produced curriculum documents that represent, at least, a strong starting place for revisions to suit school board requirements and a much cheaper way to acquire suitable expertise. Similarly, many NGO training programs could be adapted for curriculum advisor training.
Community partnerships - a key challenge is managing gardens during the summer when students and teachers are not present, and custodial staff are usually on minimal duties, with garden maintenance not typically an assigned task. Certain garden designs (particularly permaculture designs) can minimize weed and insect pressures and moisture stress, but these typically require more design skill (training and consultation). Another approach is to partner with a community organization, and several provide such support. Their expertise and access to external funding can also be significant contributions. The challenge here again is being accepted as an official school partner.
Funding - at the efficiency stage, schools will likely continue to rely on external funding, particularly Ministry of Education project grants, NGOs, parent fundraising, business donations, and private foundations.
Clearly a step beyond gardening, some schools are experimenting with social enterprise farms and market gardens that typically have youth employment dimensions in addition to curriculum linkages. Both the Toronto and Vancouver public school boards are collaborating with NGOs on pilots. There are also opportunities to link to the curriculum. Produce can be sold to the school cafeteria or off-site to restaurants or farmers' markets (Wever, 2015). Centre Wellington District High School in Ontario has integrated its Food School Farm into a comprehensive culinary arts curriculum. Foodshare Toronto supports 3 school farms that have paid over $200,000 in wages to youth.
Obviously fewer schools have the setting and resources to establish such programs, and the funding and approval processes are more demanding. They face similar, but large obstacles than school gardens, but because of the youth employment possibilities, also can access different funding pools than school gardens.
Many schools do not have adequate kitchen facilities for the types of school food and educational programming they'd like to operate. This is usually more an issue in elementary schools that have not had cafeterias, but they may have had teaching kitchens or limited facilities at some point. Changes in food safety regulations have made many older kitchen units unusable and renovations are required.
Making such renovations draws on school board capital budgets, for which there is usually fierce competition, especially given the repair backlogs faced by many school boards. The policy changes proposed above could bump kitchen renovation up on the priority list. Another option is a federal food infrastructure program (see Goal 1 Economic Development).
Cafeterias, located primarily in junior high and secondary schools, are very affected by the strengths and weaknesses of provincial, board and school food standards. They confront a complex mix of realities that affect their ability to be central contributors to a positive school eating environment, including limited menus, limited facilities (many are just reheating facilities), limited cooking skills among staff, entrenched labour-management relations, an aging cafeteria staff with limited incentives for creativity, a student body accustomed to fast food and on limited budgets, no connection to school curricula, and pressures to be profitable.
The rollout of Ontario's PPM150 in the secondary school setting provides some lessons on the implementation challenges. Because the cafeteria is still viewed as a profit (or at least break even) centre, it was found in some schools that policy compliant foods for sale in different venues (machines, cafeterias) were more expensive than pre-PPM150, and therefore students purchased cheaper non-policy compliant foods outside the school (see Substitution for proposals on longer-term shifts). School vendors experienced a loss of revenue, which suggested the need to rethink pricing strategies (Vine, Elliot & Raine, 2014; Vine & Elliot, 2014). There are also cases of school cafeterias being more creatively with the mix of foods sold, the preparation process, integration with curriculum and procurement to keep the prices more reasonable (for example, Centre Wellington District High School in Ontario).
A mix of measures will be required to address these complex realities.
Pricing - some business and institutional cafeterias, faced with similar dilemmas, have modified the pricing strategies. The less nutritious items (school standards often permit a certain level of these) are priced more expensively than regular market prices and the more nutritious items are priced somewhat lower. This increases consumption of the healthier items and the less healthy items effectively subsidize them.
Menus - delicious healthy food sells. Often, cafeterias are not adventurous enough with the menus, succumbing to the erroneous impression that students will not eat outside the standard selections. A common strategy is to create a tasty healthy twist on typical comfort food items.
Enhanced chef skills - in many school cafeterias, the staff are not trained chefs. Consistent with what's happened in many fast food environments, "cooking" is reduced to unwrapping pre-prepared items and heating them. Instead, much more creative cooking from scratch is required, especially the ability to create interesting items from what is available weekly at a reasonable price. This requires retraining or new hiring approaches once staff retire.
Different procurement strategies - cafeterias need procurement strategies that are not centralized, but that instead are designed to take advantage of special offers, whether through central purchasing or from local suppliers. Handcuffing procurement options results in failure.
Better equipped kitchens - fully equipped kitchens create more opportunities for creativity.
Connections to curriculum - use the cafeteria facilities for student training. Some schools actually have implemented culinary arts programs where the students receive credit and are paid to create and serve meals to other students.
Farm to School programs
In these programs, farmers supply fresh, local food to a school cafeteria or classrooms (Vallianatos, Gottlieb, & Haase, 2004). There are numerous models and examples (see Hoyer and Do, 2020). Sometimes a school builds relationships with one or more farms and take students on field trips to the farm, or bring farmers to the classroom. Many programs integrate procurement, cooking, food literacy and new pedagogy. To some extent, this mirrors and earlier period of food provisioning by schools.
Farm to Cafeteria Canada promotes, supports, and links farm to cafeteria programs, and proposed policy and practice for public institutions. Their school food map identifies 434 schools purchasing local healthy food, many of which buy direct from farmers. Most of the funding is grant - based, in other words, these initiatives are not necessarily woven into the fabric of a school or board's food procurement strategy.
A number of changes will make it easier for such programs to expand, some policy-level, others operational (see Hoyer and Do, 2020) Key is the construction of local supply chains and associated infrastructure, sometimes including storage above and beyond regular kitchen/cafeteria functions. These challenges are not unique to farm to school programs (see Goal 5, Sustainable Food), but can have particular features related to volumes and seasonality for the school year. The needs of schools are not necessarily something alot of farmer wish to meet, since it can require more work regarding order sizes and delivery. Prices can also be an issue. Aggregating orders across multiple schools can also be challenging.
Transform programs offered by NGOs
In the absence of a coherent approach by governments and school board to food literacy, many NGOs have stepped into the void. Some of them have missions that align with the transition to sustainable, just, health promoting food systems, others do not. Some receive government support, others do not. Some work closely with schools and school boards, others bring food education to environments in the community.
Ontario Agri-Food Education Inc. (OAFE) provides curriculum linked agricultural education materials to teachers and classrooms. It operates with government funding and builds connections between schools and the agricultural community. However, much of its materials and agenda reinforce the dominant agricultural model. In contrast, organizations such as Sustain Ontario are committed to food literacy consistent with the frameworks that guide this site.
But government funding has long re-inforced the traditional narrow view of agriculture and food system issues. Instead, their financing leverage must be used to force changes to how conventional NGOs deliver food education. If the NGOs refuse to change their pedagogical approach, funding should be removed.
Transform curriculum documents and advising to show specifically how food can be integrated
A core barrier is the lack of support for food integration into curricula. Given that the curriculum is overloaded, educators are looking for cross-curricular opportunities that permit multiple subjects to be interwoven. Food often presents such an opportunity.
There are two categories of challenge here:
a) food is briefly mentioned in curriculum documents, but the issues are narrowly framed. However, this creates the possibility of expanding the presence of food issues. Cowe (2018), in an analysis of the Ontario Grade 9 -12 curriculum, identifies references to food in many subjects, including consumer demand for fast food in Grade 11/12 Marketing courses; current issues regarding food insecurity in Grade 11/12 Politics; a discussion of food security in International Languages, level 3; the influence of social and environmental factors on food and beverage choices in Health Active Living, grade 9; the impact of food additives and preservatives in Grade 10 Science; and agricultural monocultures in Grade 11 Biology.
British Columbia's new curriculum has some encouraging dimensions in this regard, beyond what is found in Ontario but these need to be ramped up and applied across the country. The curriculum document for environmental education has limited references to the agriculture and food system in Grade 11 Science and Technology courses. But there is a food studies module in Grade 8 and 9 Applied Design, Skills and Technologies core competencies that takes a wider angle view than just nutrition and food safety. The Health Studies curriculum in later grades goes beyond traditional health matters and addresses issues of locality and seasonality in the food system and how food advertising affects choices. These integrations are likely the easiest to adopt in curriculum change but represent movement in the right direction.
b) Related subjects make little to know mention of food in curriculum documents, but there's an obvious cross-curricular opportunity. Harrison (2013) comments on this in her study of the Ontario curriculum. "The science and technology curriculum, particularly for Grade 3 .... plants and soils, and in Grade 6 of biodiversity, allows garden and food educators to zoom in on the sustainability education potential of this subject matter." Similarly, Grade 3 science and social studies [citizenship] could be integrated to provide students a greater understanding of where their food comes from. Cowe (2018) identifies additional topics in subjects from the secondary curricula, including: Canadian and World Studies, English, Indigenous Languages, Social Sciences and Humanities, and Chemistry. In BC, better integration with social studies, mathematics and community arts would be the next challenges.
It's clear that it's not an intellectual stretch to bring food more fully into curricula. The challenge is that many teachers do not have the time or knowledge to do this without curriculum development support. Many curriculum documents exist but are often outdated or only partially address food themes and many teachers are not fully aware of how to access what does exist. Many materials exist outside the school system (see previous intervention), but finding them requires an additional level of commitment by teachers. As people retire, Boards should hire food knowledgeable educators to rewrite curriculum documents, with a view to optimizing cross-curricular lesson plans.