May 29, 2024

Canada’s national school food program: promise, and work to do

Education, Giving, Policy & Data, Research
Children in school
Photo by Rawpixelimages,

The Prime Minister of Canada announced $1 billion in new funding last month to create a national school food program. The funds are part of the 2024 federal budget and will flow over five years, aiming to provide meals to 400,000 children annually, in addition to the estimated two million currently served by local programs.

Many organizations that work to improve child nutrition welcomed the funding news, including the Coalition for Healthy School Food, which has long advocated for a national program in Canada. But how the new program can best provide for students who need it most is an open question.

Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Joannah & Brian Lawson Centre for Child Nutrition and partner hospitals have been working to answer that question. Their project, Feeding Kids, Nourishing Minds, has compiled data from the last two decades on school food programs and how well they work. The team is also finding new ways to evaluate the success of these programs across Canada.

Writer Jim Oldfield spoke with Centre experts about their work, and what needs to happen next for Canada to realize the potential of a new national program.

How has the research community received this funding news?

“There is excitement among researchers who study child nutrition and school food environments across Canada,” said Dan Sellen, director of the Lawson Centre for Child Nutrition. “Here at U of T, we’re pleased because school food programs can boost student learning and foster healthy eating throughout life. This new national investment aligns with global evidence and validates what we’re trying to do at the university, which is to provide a better evidence base for delivery of effective food programs in all types of schools.”

That excitement is tempered by a 50 per cent rise in severe food insecurity across Canada’s 10 provinces over the last four years, Sellen noted. Researchers have said unequivocally that a national school food program will not adequately meet the need in food-insecure households, which now include 2.1 million Canadian children.

Still, the same researchers note the potential for a national program to improve student nutrition and academic achievement — if it’s well-designed and collaborative in nature. Hence the cautious optimism around the new funding, said Mavra Ahmed, a research associate in nutritional sciences at U of T and a lead scientist on the Feeding Kids, Nourishing Minds project.

“The funding is significant, but programs across the country face major challenges with implementation, which include a lack of evidence-based guidelines and measurement tools, trouble reaching vulnerable populations, and the ability to provide culturally appropriate food and nutrition education in a stigma-free way.”

How will the federal government distribute the new funds?

The government has yet to share those details, but Sellen and other experts said the funds will likely flow to provinces and territories willing to work with the government, and then to existing school food programs.

Debbie Field, national coordinator for the Coalition for Healthy School Food, called for cooperation between provincial and federal levels of government in a recent news release, to ensure the funds reach local programs and schools across Canada.

Field also told CBC the funds may not require new federal bureaucracy, and will likely enable schools to enhance their existing programs with more and higher-quality food. As well, the funding should allow provinces and territories to expand food programs to the roughly 1,000 schools on wait lists for those programs, she said.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said the government hoped the funds would be available for the 2024-25 school year.

Will a national program respect local decision-making, cultures and food preferences?

It should aim to do so, said Zulfiqar Bhutta, the Lawson Centre Distinguished Fellow in Climate Change, Food Systems and Child and Adolescent Nutrition at U of T. He and colleagues at the SickKids Centre for Global Child Health published a Canada-wide review of school food programs and policies last week.

Their review and other studies show that food programs vary greatly across the country in terms of design (breakfast/lunch/snack), delivery (via non-profit organizations, school boards, governments and corporations), cost sharing and student engagement.

Bhutta and his colleagues make several recommendations, including greater engagement with local communities to improve and tailor program design — especially with Indigenous students and other ethnically diverse groups.

“Influences on child nutrition are multifactorial, and include systemic and institutional factors but also parental, peer and individual elements,” said Bhutta, who is also co-director of the SickKids Centre for Global Child Health. “A national program should be able to accommodate those factors, to help address inequities associated with socioeconomic and demographic status.”

Likewise, the federal government consulted broadly with stakeholders on a national school food policy in 2022-23, and found that a national program should allow for flexibility so that “individual programs can adapt to local contexts and realities.” The Coalition for Health School Food’s guiding principles also call for a national program that is flexible and locally adapted.

What are the main challenges in creating an effective national program?

Universality — access to food programs across schools and demographic groups — is a current problem with local programs and will continue to be a national challenge, said Ahmed.

“Access is lagging across different populations, often linked to cultural identities, and food preferences and restrictions,” said Ahmed, who is guiding the collection of qualitative data on how parents, caregivers, school staff and implementers view school food programs. She and her team are also studying program uptake across Ontario.

A preliminary stakeholder analysis by U of T researchers last year found that only about 65 per cent of students in the Greater Toronto Area participate in school food programs — and that while culture and food preferences were a factor, a lack of infrastructure including kitchens and volunteers also limited access.

Measurement and evaluation of existing programs is another big challenge. “We really need more rigorous collection of data on program impact and performance, such as validated dietary intake questionnaires, measurements of physical and mental wellbeing, and monitoring of academic scores,” said Ahmed.

She and her colleagues have partnered with Toronto public schools to improve upon that kind of data collection. They will study students’ perspectives on food programs and use validated techniques to capture their dietary intakes, as well as track school attendance and other measures such as student attention span through teacher surveys.

What else do we know about existing programs?

Many programs may not be sustainable, due to their funding structure.

Vasanti Malik is a professor of nutritional sciences at U of T and a lead researcher on Feeding Kids, Nourishing Minds. She and her colleagues have looked at about 20 per cent of the programs in Canada and found that over half their funding comes from donations and fundraising.

“That really speaks to a vulnerability and a potential lack of sustainability,” Malik said.

Malik and her team have also found a disconnect between many programs’ stated goal of providing nutritious foods, and the reality that 70 per cent of organizations running those programs in Canada serve pre-packaged, often processed foods high in nutrients of concern.

They compared the nutritional quality of all programs in their study to Canada’s 2019 and 2007 dietary guidelines, and found adherence was only 50 per cent. Typical program offerings often included foods high in sugar, sodium and refined grains, and were low in plant-based and other types of protein.

“Programs are set up with good intentions, and a self-reported focus on quality and cost, but we’re seeing the nutritional quality of the food they serve is relatively low,” Malik said.

The COVID-19 pandemic compounded the challenges of serving nutritious food, but some schools do much better than others, Malik noted. She and her team are now analyzing their findings by postal code and sociodemographics, to better understand the differences among schools.

“These kinds of data will be important for a fair and effective distribution of national program funds,” said Malik.

Why is it important to design and fund a national program well?

Poor school food environments can expose kids to unhealthy diets. This can negatively affect classroom behaviour and academic performance, but also influence long-term eating habits that raise the risk of obesity, malnutrition and chronic diseases, Ahmed noted.

Corporatization of existing programs is a further risk, Malik said, especially as many programs are strapped for funding. Companies can offer attractive pricing on sweetened and low-calorie beverages, for example, and these products are enticing for students.

On the upside, a national program that is well designed and properly funded could go a long way toward improving student performance and health, Malik said. Beyond that, healthy food in schools create a culture of health for future generations.

“School programs are about food but also education around nutrition, health, the environment and sustainability,” said Malik. “Funding for a national program is a wonderful opportunity to build those elements into the curricula and culture in schools across the country, and where the needed is greatest.”

Feeding Kids, Nourishing Minds is supported by a $2 million investment from President’s Choice Children’s Charity, and by the Joannah & Brian Lawson Centre for Child Nutrition at the University of Toronto.