Dec 15, 2021

Course Mapping Child Nutrition in a Pandemic Recovery

School lunch bags and blackboard
Photo by Mothy20 on Dreamstime

Welcome to our closing Brief for 2021, which has been another challenging year in the effort to deliver evidenced-based, good nutrition to children the world over. In Canada in particular, the last six months have brought big shifts in the national and global contexts influencing child nutrition and health — including a return to school-based learning and reopening of the wider economy through national progress on COVID-19 vaccinations and the easing of public health measures.

More recently, the arrival and spread of the Omicron variant has altered pandemic recovery planning and action, and forced us to grapple anew with uncertainty. This further challenge compounds a pre-existing ‘syndemic’ — a term coined by anthropologist Merrill Singer that captures the concept of synergistic epidemics — and which now aptly describes the ricocheting impacts of climate change, growing income inequality, disrupted global supply chains and historical health inequities.

Professor Dan Sellen
Professor Daniel Sellen

The world clearly faces difficulties, but at the same time our understanding of root causes to our problems is growing, together with our ability to marshal data, technology and implementation science to overcome our challenges. These positive trends are clear in many successful efforts to improve child nutrition globally, and in much of the innovative work at the Lawson Centre in the last half-year.

Last week, we publicly launched Feeding Kids, Nourishing Minds, a major research initiative through which we will assess school-based food programs across Canada. This project will inform ongoing discussion of a national school-food program as we roll out early results next year, and will allow us to test program improvements focused on the children most at risk for nutritional deficiencies.

This exciting work is funded by the Lawson Centre and a $2 million investment from President’s Choice Children’s Charity, and has inspired support from many researchers from across the University, including a talented steering committee. Dr. Mavra Ahmed is spearheading this project and has helped establish four working groups, through which research is underway in landscaping, reviews, study design and dashboarding. Mavra is a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Professor Mary L’Abbé, and who brings ample experience in nutrition policy and research with public and private sector partners.

Feeding Kids, Nourishing Minds is also providing opportunities for learners at many levels. We hired two undergraduate students this summer to conduct a review of measurement tools and a grey literature search on the impact of COVID-19 on school meal programs, and in the fall administered five awards for graduate students in nutritional sciences and public health. These research and training opportunities complement the hire of two additional postdoctoral fellows for the project: Dr. Yu Chen, supervised by Professor Amy Bilton, and Jessica Omand, supervised by Professor Catherine Birken.

Other researchers at the Centre continued to gather momentum and publish results this term, as the pandemic recovery took hold and enabled a return to more in-person lab work and collaboration. At the same time, we continued to program virtual and in-person educational sessions on nutrition for undergraduate medical students, and saw over 400 registrants at our annual Food as Medicine Update for health professionals, which this year included a keynote by lifestyle and preventive medicine expert Dr. David Katz.

In closing, I want to thank all our faculty members, students and staff for a year of perseverance and notable accomplishments, despite the many considerable and shifting obstacles. I am optimistic about what we can yet achieve, and I look forward to the collective impact we will have on child nutrition and health in 2022. Enjoy the holidays and keep well!

Daniel Sellen
Director, Joannah & Brian Lawson Centre for Child Nutrition