Food into education


Food Deskilling

The challenges of integrating food into public educational processes

Framing the solutions




Financing the transition


Despite the centrality of food for health, culture, and social processes and its presence in our daily lives, it is not central to our educational processes. This reality is even more bizarre knowing that school-age children spend more waking time in the classroom than any other environment. There was a time when food was part of the "life skills" curriculum, but post-WWII, with labour specialization, food deskilling, and capitalist penetration of both the food marketplace and educational processes, food's place in the curriculum was progressively eroded. Educators did not feel that food skills were a priority.

This loss is widely lamented by farm, food, and health organizations, and many NGOs have devoted considerable programming to food reskilling within community settings, without significant impacts at a  population level. In part, such efforts are competing with the advertising budgets of food companies (see Goal 1 Changing consumer information systems). Given the pressures on the schools to address labour force development deficiencies (see Goal 8), it has been extremely difficult to integrate food into the primary and secondary schools in new ways that reflect a food literacy approach (i.e., beyond cooking skills). The challenges are made more complex by the contestation among civil society groups regarding what should be conveyed to students (e.g. sustainable food systems vs. Agriculture in the Classroom).

Although significantly more needs to be done to integrate food literacy into community spaces (see other components of Goal 3), this section focuses on strategies to integrate food literacy into the public school system. The rationale is that for food to be treated as a public good, it must be intertwined with other public goods (education, health care, energy utilities).

Food Deskilling

Food deskilling is now widespread. Children link food to the supermarket but not to nature and biological processes. Adults eat out all the time because they have no interest or ability to prepare food at home. Families rarely cook and eat together. Shopping carts are often full of highly processed food because the shoppers have no ability to cook from scratch. Chronic diseases and conditions are widespread and the public has limited awareness of the links to dietary choices. Many have no idea how to grow vegetables. The deskilled consumer  has “become progressively less ‘skilled’ in absolute and relative terms, as they become increasingly distanced (in time and space and experience) from the sites and processes of production” (Jaffe and Gertler, 2006:143)

These realities cannot be blamed on individual behaviour, they are the product of structural deskilling. “Significant and planned restructuring within the agri-food industry and food systems has resulted in both worker deskilling in food manufacturing and food-related consumer deskilling which…has and will have significant consequences on consumer choice, diet, and health” (Chenell, 2010). “The agro-food industry has spent billions on marketing campaigns to persuade and re-educate consumers for its own purposes” (Jaffe and Gertler, 2006). Essentially, much of the food industry is dependent for profitability on a population that has limited ability to maximize nutritional bang for the buck, poor shopping and cooking skills, and no real sense of what creates dietary health. This is because, in the perverse economics of the food system, "value-added" means manipulating foods for convenience, specified flavour profiles (usually rooted in excess sugar, salt, caffeine and/or fat), and improved product profit margins, usually at the expense of nutritional value. The food industry has taken on part of the role of the family. Skills are less commonly passed in the kitchen from one family member to another, but instead the need to spend time in the kitchen is removed by the food industry as it claims to take on these arduous cooking functions on behalf of the family. These processes go back particularly to the post-WWII period when the specialization of labour within industrial capitalism really took hold (Burawoy, 1978). The “profitable employment of wage labor is based, in part, on the ability to turn workers, and their families and neighbors, into new kinds of consumers – those who invest a minimum of time and effort in their food. This leaves more time for wage work, but also more time for other (more profitable) kinds of consumption” (Jaffe and Gertler, 2006:145). Also important was the food industry's strategy to market convenience food to women post-war and the complicity of certain segments of the feminist movement in encouraging convenience so as to liberate women from the kitchen, at the time viewed as a way to address inequalities in social reproduction and employment status and income (Arsenijevich, 2014). The unfortunate side effect has been increased penetration of convenience and poor quality foods into household diets.

The challenges

There are many structural challenges that limit the integration of food in formal educational processes, from questions of jurisdictions to the organization of activities within schools themselves.

The provinces are largely responsible for education with delivery through regional or local school boards, and significant funding through the federal government's Canadian Social Transfer. Federal, provincial and local missions do not always align. The food environment in institutional settings is not considered a significant part of the education mandate. Food is not typically named in provincial Education or Schools Acts. The historical view is that food is the responsibility of the family and only limited institutional resources will be devoted to assuring positive food environments that support health and academic environments. Agriculture is a divided federal/provincial/territorial jurisdiction and responsibility for the food system is even more fragmented than Education (see Instruments, Constitutional Provisions).

Food literacy and food citizenship are interdisciplinary concepts in an institutional environment typically constrained by disciplinary thinking. These are not subjects in the traditional schooling sense and therefore don't fit neatly in traditional curriculum organization. B.Ed. programs at Canadian universities have little content regarding food literacy, critical food pedagogy, and food citizenship.

As long as teachers meet the deliverables (check off the curriculum boxes), they are largely left to deliver the curriculum as they see fit. Integrating food literacy into the curriculum thus depends on individual teachers being willing to deliver education outside the traditional approaches, especially if they also have an activist orientation to the material (Barrett, 2013). This can be institutionally challenging as in many schools there are norms of teaching behaviour that do not align with food citizenship and activist orientations. An overloaded curriculum means it is difficult to determine how to integrate food into the requirements.

Curriculum advisors in school boards typically know little about food literacy and curriculum documents are also weak in this regard (Catalyst Centre, 1999). Consequently, interested teachers can not usually go to the usual sources of information if interesting in integrating food into their curricula.

Many schools have dismantled their food infrastructure (or never had it), including gardens, indoor gardening equipment, food labs, and working kitchens. The social infrastructure around food is also often lacking. For instance, maintaining school gardens during the summer months is challenging for many teachers interested in supporting such efforts.

Children in 151 countries receive free or subsidized school food (Rutledge, 2016). UNICEF ranks Canada 37th out of 41 wealthy countries in terms of child hunger, food security, and nutrition (Innocenti, 2017). Many European countries developed school food programs in the early 1900s (Rutledge, 2009) and the US followed suit in 1946 (Morgan & Sonnino, 2008), but Canada remains an anomaly among industrialized nations without a national program. There are also no national school food standards, and the provinces are seen to be responsible, so the provision of school food across the country is fragmented and underfunded  (Henry et. al., 2003; Russel, 2004, p. 34; Leo, 2007, p. 13).

Senior administrators are often unsupportive, in part because of their limited knowledge of the field. Although small infusions of money can facilitate changes, they are not deemed a priority in a budget-constrained environment.

Provincial policy documents, while often encouraging new approaches, do not align with what's happening in the school board and the school and there is little material support and enforcement. The changes they propose are not reflected at the classroom level. Although some provinces have relatively progressive policy frameworks and policies related to food in schools, they are most commonly voluntary. Boards are under no specific obligations to implement them. For example, Ontario has Acting Today, Shaping Tomorrow (ATST) (Ontario Ministry of Education 2009), which states:

"Ontario’s education system will prepare students with the knowledge, skills, perspectives, and practices they need to be environmentally responsible citizens. Students will understand our fundamental connections to each other and to the world around us through our relationship to food, water, energy, air, and land, and our interaction with all living things. The education system will provide opportunities within the classroom and the community for students to engage in actions that deepen this understanding" (p. 6).

School gardens are clearly consistent with this approach, but Boards and schools are not required to implement them. No funding associated with core transfers from the provinces to municipal boards are associated with school grounds and gardens. Very few Boards have used provincial funds for school ground improvements but this is the exception (Harrison, 2013).

Financing the transition

Financing these changes is intimately linked to the larger question of the financing of public education and health promotion, and the way priorities are set. In the current environment, food is largely considered an ancillary activity, something that should be self-financing and should not draw on the education budget. In many provinces, the cafeteria is supposed to be a profit centre, financing other food, and educational activities in the school (see, for example, Policy 127 of the NB School Administration Regulation, Cafeteria Funds).

Changing the financing model for education is a long-term agenda beyond the scope of this site, but there are some short to medium-term possibilities that are specific to the role of food in schools.

At the efficiency stage,

1. Revenues from school farms can help cover program costs. There are obviously start-up costs with school farms, including infrastructure, tools and equipment, inputs, and personnel.

2. If cafeteria menus are more interesting, there are opportunities for waste reduction and reduced hauling costs. If the school has an onsite composting program and the compost is part of the garden or farm, there are further reduction opportunities.

3. A national school food program will need to offer a multiparty financing model with significant transfers from the federal and provincial governments. As many food initiatives are designed to improve population health, reduced expenditures on health care create opportunities for reallocations (see Problems, Poor Diet and Goal 3, Integrating food and health care). The World Food Programme (2016), in its review of 10 countries with significant programs, concluded that each dollar invested generated $3-10 in economic benefits, including income transfers and health care costs avoided to households, improved productivity both short term in student performance and long term in employment and wage opportunities, and longer and healthier lives (see also Ruetz et al. 2023).

Based on the Ruetz and McKenna (2021) survey, governments in Canada are already spending at least $100 million on school food programs and that doesn't include funds coming from businesses, foundations, NGOs, and parents, nor funding for other food in schools initiatives such as gardens and new curriculum elements. Provinces/territories are only covering a limited percentage of total program costs. The complexity of the current funding arrangements, the different criteria, and allowable expenses, and the variable coverage creates a significant inefficiency and reduced effectiveness that must be addressed in a streamlined funding model.

The Coalition for Healthy School Food is calling for a 5 year graduated $1 billion investment by the federal government in a national school food program. Ruetz and McKenna (2021) estimated that a national program covering 95% of public school students based on the Finnish model would require $4.3 billion, so the Coalition's proposal would require a  modest relative contribution from the federal government as a percentage of total costs. This assumes a multi-party funding model which seems appropriate given current circumstances. The net costs are potentially substantially lower if school food programs deliver better school performance and better health and although many of the savings would reduce provincial expenditures on health care and social assistance (see analysis by the World Food Programme, 2016). The Canada Health Transfer and the Canada Social Transfer support health care, post-secondary education, social assistance and social services, early childhood development, and child care. They are one mechanism for transfers to the provinces to support school food programming.

Recently, the federal government has somewhat returned to earmarking CHT and CST transfers for specific programming and that would be required here. There are many possible scenarios here, but one would be that a matching ratio of 60% federal, 40% provincial (territories might rely exclusively on federal dollars) is required for federal money to be transferred, meaning a total fed/prov contribution of approximately $1.67 billion over 5 years. If we assume average food costs of $1.20/student/day (based on City of Toronto program costs) and average parental contributions to the program of $0.60/student/day, then the program could support 3.1 million students/day over the 5-year period. If we assume total elementary and secondary school enrollment of approximately 5 million students, then the program would cover approximately 60% of the population in the first 5 years. In this scenario, infrastructure improvements and staffing would be covered by contributions (cash and in-kind) from schools, school boards, municipalities, businesses, and foundations. There is also historically federal infrastructure funding available for economic development, and large school infrastructure improvements could also be financed in this way.

Funding could be covered by earmarked taxes (see Goal 4, Reducing consumption of nutrients of concern).

House and Senate discussions over the past few years indicate that federal involvement could be imminent. In addition to the National Food Policy announcement (see blog posts), as articulated by Haines and Ruetz, (2020),

"... in 2018 Senator Art Eggleton made a motion to “develop an adequately funded, national, cost-shared, universal nutrition program.” Senator Art Eggleton was not the first 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. Similarly, 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 private member's bill was introduced by NDP health critic, Don Davies, Bill C-446, titled ‘An Act to develop a national school food program for children’. It did not go beyond the first reading.

During the COVID-19 emergency, the federal government provided $2 billion for safe school re-opening. This suggests a cooperative federalist approach for school food is possible, and that the provinces will accept federal financial leadership on education under specified circumstances. The challenge, of course, is to convince all the provinces that school food is a priority and a national model is appropriate. Analysis by Coulas et al. (2022) leads to a conclusion, unfortunately, that the opposite has resulted, that provinces had an opportunity to advance school food implementation and failed to do so.

Finally, a national school food program will create jobs for chefs and kitchen staff, as many as 62,000 by one analysis. Retrofits would also generate economic activity (Ruetz et al., 2020). Some part of the investment would be returned as federal and provincial taxes.