Universal School Meals: Putting Child Health Back on the Front Foot
By Amberley T. Ruetz, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Saskatchewan & Co-Chair of the Canadian Association for Food Studies’ School Food Working Group and Terence Hamilton, Domestic Policy Specialist, UNICEF Canada & Director, Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children.
It isn’t always easy to be a kid—or for that matter, a parent responsible for one. But we can all agree that over the last few years, it’s grown increasingly harder.
From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the months of missed education that accompanied it, through steep inflation and significant increases in the cost of living, to a banner year for RSV and influenza infections that has many pediatric healthcare systems on the brink of collapse; childhood in Canada since 2019 has been defined by a series of rolling crises.
Certainly, an acute crisis like the one facing our pediatric hospitals requires a swift response. But that doesn’t mean we can take our eye off the big picture when it comes to child health equity in this country. Child health has been on the back foot for a long time in Canada. More than a decade ago, a House of Commons Standing Committee report found that youth today may be the first generation to have sicker, shorter lives than their parents.
Globally, Canada has fallen to 30th out of 38 high-income countries in the UNICEF report card series on child well-being.
At some point, we have to start thinking differently about our children’s health. The federal government completed a public consultation towards establishing the first-ever pan-Canadian School Food Policy in December. In the spring budget, the Coalition for Healthy School Food is calling on the Government of Canada to contribute at least $1 billion over five years to provincial, territorial and Indigenous partners to guarantee a healthy meal to every child every school day. The need is urgent, especially during a period of high food inflation. The positive impacts on child health, learning and inclusion will be priceless.
Currently, over one-third of schools in Canada offer breakfast, lunch and/or snacks free of charge to JK-12 students. As stated in the government’s online consultation questionnaire, “the Pan-Canadian School Food Policy will help set out a path for a future where more children can receive nutritious food at school.”
Most people think of school meals as charity provided to children who might otherwise be unable to eat. They do that, of course, but a National School Food Program could and should be so much more. It can be a means to instill life-long healthy eating habits, for children to learn about where food comes from and how to prepare it, and to participate in culture and community.
To achieve all that, Canada’s National School Food Program should be universal, health-promoting, and non-stigmatizing.
It should provide and celebrate culturally diverse and appropriate foods. Ideally, there should be a focus on local and regional food production, and food and health literacy. A well-designed program would lead not only to healthier children, but healthier economies, ecosystems, and communities as well.
Food is a part of every single student’s school day. For some, that means a wholesome breakfast with family before catching the bus. For others, it’s grabbing some fast food with friends down the street from their school. Maybe it is a quick apple or granola bar as they rush between one classroom and the next. And for too many, of course, school food is defined by its absence—their hunger causing them to be short with a friend, or to struggle to pay attention after lunch.
Schools aren’t just teaching students grammar and arithmetic. They’re also teaching the next generation about what it means to live in our society. Apart from maybe universal healthcare, public schools are the single most important equity-supporting institutions we’ve got. What we make time for in our schools shows students what it is we value. If healthy, culturally-appropriate, environmentally-responsible, shared mealtimes are made a part of their school day, they’re all the more likely to make them a part of their lives as well.
It isn’t always easy to focus on the big picture when faced with such immediate challenges. Instead of constantly patching leaks, we need to be building resilient institutions that put child health back on the front foot. Canada’s first-ever National School Food Policy and Program represents a generational opportunity to do just that.