Implement a national school food program (adapted from Coalition for Healthy School Food, undated; Bas, 2018; Hernandez et al., 2018; Ruetz and McKenna, 2021)
In the 2019 federal budget submitted to Parliament in March 2019, the federal government promised to enter into negotiations with the provinces and territories to create a national school food program. The federal promise was re-iterated in the 2022 federal budget, and the responsibility for discussions with the provinces, territories, municipalities, indigenous partners, and other stakeholders assigned to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-food and the Minister of Families, Children, and Social Development. The first task is to develop a National Food School Policy, from which presumably a program will flow. As yet, there are no details. A number of municipalities, including Vancouver, Victoria and Toronto have passed Council motions supporting the need for a national program.
The case for school food programs
Veugelers and Schwartz (2010) argue that:
"Schools are widely acknowledged as an appropriate and logical setting in which to promote healthy behaviours... During their school years, students develop health habits through what they learn and through the health choices they make in their school environment. These habits acquired at a young age may lead to lifelong healthy behaviours."
And the Public Health Agency of Canada concluded:
"When children go to school hungry or poorly nourished, their energy levels, memory, problem-solving skills, creativity, concentration, and behaviour are all negatively impacted… As a result of being hungry at school, these children may not reach their full developmental potential—an outcome that can have a health impact throughout their entire lives" (Butler Jones, 2008).
Well-designed school food programmes improve dietary intake of key foods that are under-consumed, reduce consumption of food of concern (see citations in Coalition for Healthy School Food, undated; Hernandez et al., 2018; Everitt et al., 2020), reduce the effect of income disparities on fruit and vegetable intake (Longacre et al, 2014) and effectively address food insecurity (Roustit, Hamelin, Grillo, Martin, & Chauvin, 2010). On any given school day, over 5% of students do not each lunch, associated with being older, food insecure, or smoking (Tugault-Lafleur and Black, 2021). There is some evidence that school food meals are nutritional superior to home lunches, on average (Evans et al., 2012; Tugault-Lafleur et al., 2017; Ruetz and McKenna, 2021). Increased consumption at school often also improves home consumption (Ishdorj, Crepinsek & Jensen, 2012). There are also reports of improved mental health, fewer visits to the school nurse, reduced hunger and lethargy, better relations with peers (Kleinman et al., 2002; Murphy et al., 1998), as well as improved cognitive ability, mental well-being, and academic performance (see citations in Coalition for Healthy School Food, undated; Hoyland, Dye, & Lawton, 2009). They can improve child food literacy and contribute to the development of local food systems (Powell and Wittman, 2018). The Coalition for School Food has summarized these themes in a diagram depicting the potential of school food. See also a summary of health benefits in Canadian studies by Rachel Engler-Stringer.
Most high-income countries have national school food programmes (albeit following different models), but they largely follow three phases (Oostindjer et al.; 2017; Hernandez et al., 2018). The first phase, from about 1850 to the 1970s showed its purposes to be primarily about reducing hunger, and often in response to war. Providing calories was the main focus. In the 1970s, some European countries (and the US and UK in the 80s and 90s) provoked a food quality shift, phase II. More nutritionally focused dietary guidelines were established. The third phase is in its infancy, a response to child obesity, chronic diseases, and the need for food system change. This phase incorporates wider food system and societal issues in programs and policies and links them with curricula and the school environment.
Specific to Canada, Toronto had some of the earliest programming, spearheaded by Medical Officer of Health Charles Hastings (1910-1929). Toronto Public Health funded programs to distribute free milk in schools during his tenure (de Wit, 2012).
School lunch programs existed in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver during WWII (see Goal 2, Demand Supply Coordination, Lessons from WWII). They were designed to improve student health and stimulate the agricultural sector. Some provinces provided equipment and grants. A proposal for a national program came forward in 1944 but was not adopted by the federal government. Officially, it was rejected because trial school lunch programme evaluations did not reveal dramatic improvements, but unofficially, opposition to it was largely political (Mosby, 2014).
Paradoxically, some provinces, such as Ontario, have had food programs in regulated daycares for decades, yet such school food environments have not been deemed appropriate in elementary or secondary schools. Ontario's programs began during WWII and were indirectly legislated in 1946 with provincial funding (Prentice, 1989). Despite cutbacks during the 1950s associated with Cold War rhetoric and conservative views about the role of women, some programs survived (Rutledge, 2009). Since 1990, the legislation has provided age-specific regulations on nutritious meals and snacks, staff-to-child ratios, and staff training (Day Nurseries Act, 1990 and subsequent amendments, and now the Child Care and Early Years Act, 2014)
There have been more sustained school food programs dotted across the country for at least 30 years (see survey conducted by McIntyre and Dayle, 1992), created by concerned teachers, parents and private funders. In the 1990s some provinces began targeting regional initiatives with spotty coverage relative to the need. Some municipalities and school boards have been key drivers of programming, ultimately convincing some provinces to provide substantial funding. Ruetz and McKenna (2021; see particularly Table 2) provide a history of provincial/territorial involvement in funding programs and highlight the wide range of departments that have been providing that funding. However, in general, Canada has done a weak job of assuring nourishment for children, ranked 37 out of the 41 wealthiest nations (UNICEF Canada, 2017), with a patchwork of initiatives across the country.
First Nations and Inuit
The Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) launched a program in 2019 with 2 meals/day, with funding from the Jordan's Principle through Indigenous Services Canada (ISC). Supporting First Nations school food programs across the Yukon, the funding covers the purchase and transport of fresh, nutritious food; assistance with harvesting traditional foods; cooks; upgrades to kitchens, and two CYFN coordinators. Inuit Nunangat has Inuit-led breakfast programs operating in a number of locations, but none have stable funding, are dependent primarily on volunteers, and lack access to Inuit-specific nutritional standards (ITK, 2021).
Provinces and territories (adapted from Martorell, 2017; Bas, 2018; Ruetz and McKenna, 2021)
Programs exist in most provinces and territories but highly unevenly, with a wide range of funding levels from the state, different implementation models (often involving NGOs and volunteers), and diverse responsibility for that funding (mostly Ministries of Education, of Health, of Social Services, and of Indigenous Affairs, and of Labour). Programs are voluntary, additional funds typically come from businesses, community groups, school boards, parents, and foundations, and many needs go unaddressed. As a result, participation rates are highly variable, though the data gaps impose certain limitations on the analysis. Although the Ruetz and McKenna (2021) survey does not account for all programs since they focused on those with P/T-wide funding by governments (excluding particularly NB which started a program after the survey was completed) and free student access, they concluded that the territories have the highest rates of school and student participation, followed by Atlantic Canada (excepting NB), Ontario and Manitoba. They estimate conservatively that 35% of Canadian schools offer one or more programs benefiting about 20% of the public school population.
Ontario's Healthy Kids Panel (2012) recommended a universal school nutrition program for all publicly funded elementary schools. Programs would be designed to "include learning about where food comes from and how it is grown, as well as the hands-on experience of cooking and access to healthy foods for those coming to school hungry". The Ministry of Child and Youth Services pays for 15% of the overall cost of programs in place before 2008 and 15% of the cost of food for targeted breakfast and morning meal programs (de Wit, 2012). The provincial contribution was originally estimated at $0.08 per child per school day (Martorell, 2017), but the Ruetz and McKenna (2021) survey suggests it is three times higher than that, but divided across 3 units, with some expenditures unknown. Ministry of Child and Youth Services funds are accessed through 14 agencies, with additional agencies attached to other funding programs.
Starting with pilots in the early 1990s, today programs are run by students, parents, and volunteers with support and oversight by Student Nutrition Ontario - Toronto, a partnership of the public and Catholic school boards, their charitable foundations, Toronto Public Health, and FoodShare Toronto, with funding from the province of Ontario, the City of Toronto, parent contributions, community and school-board fundraising initiatives, and corporate donations. For the 2016-17 school year, 822 SNPs were offered at 621 sites, serving bout 200,000 students, representing about half of students in publicly funded schools in Toronto. Funding is the key dilemma, with governments then contributing only 14.16% of operating costs, or $0.19, per elementary student per meal each school day. The MCYS Student Nutrition Program is administered through the Toronto Foundation for Student Success.
Toronto City Council passed a motion to “request [that] the Government of Canada… implement a cost-shared universal healthy school food program that would enable all students to have access to healthy meals at school every day, as advocated by the Coalition for Healthy School Food” (City of Toronto, 2017).
Quebec programs have targeted low-income areas. Investments are framed by the Act on Poverty and Social Exclusion (2001). A minimum food budget per student is allocated ($1.20 per breakfast/student) (Ruetz and McKenna, 2021). The provincial government focused $21 million on secondary schools and provided over $9 million to the Breakfast Club of Canada (Quebec operations).
The provincial program has focused on the lowest quintile of the low-income measure, with supplemental funding from the Commission Scolaire de Montreal. There are also programs supported by NGOs, again focused on schools in low-income neighbourhoods.
Vancouver receives around $9 million from CommunityLink for the main programs, but no funding for vulnerable students. However, the Vancouver School Board, with support from the municipality, funds programs in elementary schools for the most vulnerable students, covering some 1300 students in approximately 35 schools.
The focus has typically been child poverty, but some studies have found certain program designs to have minimal efficacy, largely due to problems of social exclusion and resulting poor participation rates (Raine, McIntyre & Dalye, 2003; Williams et al., 2003; Hay, 2000; McIntyre, Travers & Dayle, 1999).
For young children, forced consumption imposes conflict, associated with a lack of control (Batsell, Brown, Ansfield & Paschall, 2002). Adult and peer modeling, use of a family meal style setting, sequencing foods offered, and agency are all more effective (Fletcher et.al., 2005).
The Coalition for School Food guiding principles for school food program design are: universal, health-promoting, respectful and non-stigmatizing, sustainable, connected to local community (including farms and local supply chains), and comprehensive. These design elements are supported by a number of studies looking at best practices and effectiveness (Ruetz and McKenna, 2021). Although many designs are possible with the applications of these principles, most current programs would not appear to meet all of these criteria (Ruetz and McKenna, 2021), so a national funding model (see Financing the Transition) will need to explicitly adopt them as a means to encourage program transitions. Although there will likely be some variability in the loci of decision making at the P/T level, the locus should not alter the design principles and the implementation commitments as this would continue the uneven application across the country.
Program success will also require investments in teacher and food preparation staff training and kitchen facilities infrastructure (Hernandez et al., 2018; Everitt et al., 2020; Haines and Ruetz, 2020). Given the government's historical propensity for infrastructure spending, it has been proposed that a one-time $200 million contribution to school facilities would address many of the current inadequacies (Coalition for Healthy School Food, 2020). Also requiring serious consideration is the eating environment. Providing environments that are calm, spacious, time suitable, and model supportive social environments is critical (cf. Bas, 2018).
Given the federal promise to convene discussions with the provinces and territories, an FPT committee would appear to be the most promising vehicle for discussion and later implementation. One that already has school food environments on its agenda is the Pan Canadian Joint Consortium for School Health.
Transform B.Ed. programs in Canadian universities
Teacher candidates report a paucity of exposure to critical food pedagogies and food literacy in B.Ed. programs (Campigotto, 2018), despite provincial directives regarding the need for environmental education and pedagogies of place. Implementing significant curriculum change in any university program is challenging, but often especially so for professional programs that have to be in sync with professional practice and requirements. Consequently, universities, even if they wanted to, will not be able to drive curriculum change without support from other actors. Each province (and some territories) has a unit/body that assures quality in university programs. Additionally, many teachers are organized in federations that have a union or quasi-union status and they negotiate the conditions of work with the provinces/territories. Because place-based and critical food pedagogies have impacts on the conditions of work, such actors must also be on-board with changes.
A well designed joined up food policy sends a message to the education system that changes are needed, but it requires advocates for change with a well-articulated strategy because of the inter and intra-governmental jurisdictional divisions. An alliance of NGOs, university professors in Depts of Education, teachers, and Education Ministry officials will likely be required.
Although food literacy can be related to most teachables, a more promising starting place is shifting the B.Ed. curriculum in specific teachable subjects that obviously relate to food literacy themes: environmental sciences, family studies, health and physical education, economics, geography, and politics. Given how short many B.Ed. programs are, a key negotiation is what to let go of in the curriculum to make room for food literacy. Another core shift is in community-based and school-based practicum placements. Given the number of community-based food literacy programs, the former will likely be easier to start than the latter, which in the beginning depends on finding teacher mentors and schools that are already knowledgeable about food literacy.
Create junk-food free zones around schools
In urban areas, many secondary schools are surrounded by junk food restaurants and convenience stores and there's some evidence that the greater the concentration, the more likely students are to eat away from school (Heroux et al., 2012). Neighbourhood income may also be a variable as some studies have found higher concentrations of fast food outlets near schools in low-income areas (Simon et al., 2008). Effectively, then, the school food offerings (and often lunches from home) struggle with junk food operations for the stomachs (and minds) of the students. Although contested, there is some evidence that proximate junk food restaurants change negatively the eating patterns of students (Brennan and Carpenter, 2009; He et al., 2012).
Changing this is challenging because:
- most secondary schools permit students to leave the school site during lunch hours.
- most schools were built many years ago and the built environment around the school, including fast food restaurants, has been in place for some time. Although it was done with cannabis retail in Colorado (Hager, 2018), it is unlikely that forcing existing restaurants to move away from schools would be deemed legal, given current municipal authorities.
- Governments have been reluctant to impose healthy menus on private firms, leaving it to the marketplace to determine what will be offered.
- In contrast to several US municipalities that have used zoning to create healthy food zones or restrict siting of junk food retailers and restaurants (Mair et al., 2005; Ashe et al., 2011), Canadian municipalities have limited ability to favour or restrict through zoning the types of commercial enterprises located around a school. Such initiatives have typically been viewed as discriminatory (Grant et al., 2010) and in some provinces, quasi-governmental appeal tribunals such as the Ontario Municipal Board (now the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal) have been used to block city initiatives. However, the development of cannabis retail presents some possible lessons to restrict junk food in existing neighbourhoods. Several cities, including Vancouver, have imposed 300 m restriction zones around schools for cannabis outlets (Hager, 2018). It could be possible to make similar by-laws when junk food restaurants attempt to move into an area around a school.
There may be more opportunities to intervene successfully when a new neighbourhood is being designed, but established areas will experience a complicated transition. Municipalities might use their urban design standards as interim tools while waiting for provinces to provide them with more authority to restrict unhealthy foods near schools through the Acts that create them. Alternately, in Ontario, for example, amendments to the Provincial Policy Statement under the Planning Act, particularly section 4.5 regarding land use planning and public health, would be required. Inevitably, the state will have to impose restrictions on location and increase prices of poor-quality foods. The tools for such interventions are discussed in more detail under Goal 4, Reducing consumption of nutrients of concern. Using such tools around schools will be a priority intervention.