Correcting the course on school food : Opinion Letter to Quebec Media

Wednesday, September 18, 2019 - 11:17am

By Thibaud Liné, Nancy Neamtan, Colleen Thorpe et Gisèle Yasmeen

On August 22nd, Québec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge announced an additional $1.27 million to increase food assistance in 134 schools in Quebec. This decision is a good short-term solution as it addresses some of the most urgent needs facing childhood nutrition today. However, it only highlights how much more needs to be done to support children's health and academic success. While approaching the federal election, it is important to recall Canada's delay in school food programs and ask political parties on how they plan to correct course and ensure no child goes hungry at school.

Few people know that Canada is one of the only industrialized countries without a universal national school food program. In fact, Canada currently ranks at the bottom of the list internationally - 37th out of 41 countries in a UNESCO study on children's access to healthy food at school.

Over the decades, various provincial, municipal, private and community programs have attempted to fill this gap with a variety of initiatives. In Québec, the school-based food aid program, which has been in place for many years, targets the most vulnerable children and schools. Yet there are still far too many children who do not eat enough or eat poorly and do not have access to these measures. In addition, studies show that programs targeting certain children can have negative effects related to the stigma of being part of a "vulnerable" group. This is true in studies in Québec and across Canada.

This situation is unacceptable and for this reason, for several years now, the national Coalition for Healthy School Food has been promoting the adoption of a universal, flexible and healthy school food program. This program would include breakfasts and lunches according to the different approaches in the current school food system and a method that promotes culinary education among the young. The pan-Canadian coalition, to which several Québec organizations belong, proposes that Canada catch up with other OECD countries by implementing a federal cost-sharing policy. This approach takes into account both public and community initiatives already underway across Canada as well as the jurisdictional matters, so that all schools will eventually be able to provide students with healthy meals and snacks on a daily basis, either for free or at a modest cost. Such a program should prioritize sustainable food (healthy, local and eco-responsible food) that will benefit children’s health and the wellbeing of the planet.

Canada's delay in this area is now on the federal policy agenda. In March 2019, the federal budget included for the first time ever a commitment to work with the provinces and territories to develop a national school food program. In June 2019, the Food Policy for Canada, announced by the Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, took the step of creating a National School Food Program and committed the government to take the first consultative steps, in collaboration with the provinces, territories and non-profit organizations, to create a National School Food Program to help improve the health of school-age children. This will ensure a better future for them and, ultimately, for our country. Though noble in intent, such a program remains to be implemented.

In the lead-up to the federal election, the Coalition intends to call on all political parties and solicit their support for such a program. Minister Roberge is correct when he says that "food assistance in schools is essential to the wellbeing and success of students, especially the most vulnerable." In our opinion, a universal school food program that leaves no child behind, regardless of their family’s income, is the best way to address the situation. We have every reason to believe that this objective can be achieved if the Government of Canada, provinces, institutions and civil society organizations work together to meet this challenge, which is essential to the wellbeing, health and academic success of our youth.


What do those who aspire to form Canada's next government have to say about this?


Signed by:

Thibaud Liné, General Director, La cantine pour tous

Nancy Neamtan, Member of the Board of Directors of Food Secure Canada (FSC)

Colleen Thorpe, Acting General Director, Équiterre

Gisèle Yasmeen, General Director of Food Secure Canada (FSC)