Social Innovation in Food Policy: National School Food Program Needed

Wednesday, August 30, 2017 - 5:34pm

A recent UNICEF report ranked Canada 37th out of 41 high-income countries around access to nutritious food for children, below the United States and just over Bulgaria, Malta, Turkey and Mexico. As a country trying to position itself as a world leader, whose government is focused on children and families, this is unacceptable and presents us with a clear imperative to improve.

The Canadian companion to the report recommends a national school food program as a solution. Indeed, Canada is one of the only Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries without one, and Canadian children are not provided consistent access to healthy food at school, where they spend more than half their waking hours. Indeed, in the report from his 2012 mission to Canada, then United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter recommended the adoption of a national children and food strategy that would include support for school food programs. In countries such as Finland, France and Japan, all of whom score highly in the report, schoolchildren are fed well-balanced meals daily, are often served by their peers, and eat with adults who teach them about the value of nutrition and healthy diets.

The good news is that Canada is in a unique position to repair this deplorable situation and to catch up with other OECD countries in ensuring access to nutritious food in schools across the country. The federal government is currently developing both a national food policy that will identify actions for food-related health and social goals and a Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy to “achieve positive solutions to persistent social problems”.

Combined with the Healthy Eating Strategy being developed by the Health Minister, these agendas can allow Canada to show its capacity to find innovative and inclusive strategies to provide children with the nutrition and dietary habits they need to lead healthy lives and to succeed at school.

And we are not starting from scratch: across the country, provincial, territorial and municipal governments, charities, parents, teachers and volunteers are running school food programs from which we can learn. Alberta and Nova Scotia recently increased investment in school food programs, and many jurisdictions are exploring how healthy food can best be provided. Toronto has increased its funding to over $12 million annually, and Vancouver recently passed a motion to support municipal advocacy for further action at the federal and provincial levels. And not-for-profits from across the country are finding innovative ways not only to feed children in schools but also to teach them how to cook and garden and to strengthen school communities with food.

There have been a lot of attention and resources devoted to increasing agricultural exports as a strategy for economic growth. But a national food policy must also address the fact that diet-related diseases are the leading cause of skyrocketing public health care costs and must improve access to nutritious food for all Canadians. The best place to start is to instill healthy habits in children, a third of whom are overweight or obese in this country, rather than trying to improve them later in life.

Social innovation and social finance must also address as a priority the basic needs of Canadians. Healthy food for children is a fundamental right, and, as evidenced by the UNICEF report, one that we are failing to respect. What’s more, there is a lot of social innovation already going on in the area, and community organisations across the country are finding fresh approaches. FoodShare Toronto procures at a discount small apples that would normally be unsaleable and thus be wasted on farm but that are perfect snacks for kids. Fresh Roots in Vancouver grows organic food on school campuses, which is then either used for school food programs or sold by high-school students at local farmers’ markets, teaching them about entrepreneurship. Le Réseau des cafétérias communautaires in New Brunswick is incorporating food literacy into school food programs by involving children in food preparation and cooking.

Interest in social finance opens up the possibility for innovative methods of financing a pan-Canadian school food program, like the cost-shared approach being advocated by the Coalition for Healthy School Food. Certainly, we need to take into account local and regional realities and jurisdictions, but there is a growing consensus among provincial and municipal governments that we must do more to deal with this issue.

School food programs are a great way to mobilise Canadians, who care deeply about the health and wellbeing of their children. Provincial, territorial and municipal governments, nonprofits, and schools from across the country are ready to work with the federal government to ensure we become a world leader in ensuring access to nutritious food for all children. For this, we need a clear and forward-looking national food policy that has the health of Canadian children at its core.