We have all seen the photos widely circulated through social media that provide examples of what children are fed at school in various countries. Photos from school meals in France and Brazil feature colourful plates of fruits and vegetables with healthy proteins and grains. Canadian photos, however, are noticeably absent.
One of the only industrialized countries without a national school food program, Canada has a patchwork of programs that reach only a small percentage of its five million schoolchildren. The Coalition for Healthy School Food, an alliance of 34 organizations from across the country, is looking for a federal investment that would see these programs expanded to all children and all schools in Canada.
So why do we need a national program? Because Canadian children aren’t eating enough of the right foods and getting too many of the wrong ones. Only one-third of those between the ages of four and 13 eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables; one-quarter of the calories children consume come from foods not recommended in Canada’s Food Guide; one-third of elementary school students and two-thirds of high school students do not eat a healthy breakfast before going to school.
These kinds of eating behaviours have led to the tripling of childhood obesity rates in the last 30 years and to an increase in the rate of chronic diseases, some of which were previously seen only in adults.
School food programs have been shown to promote better physical and mental health and to support student learning and success in school. These programs increase consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and decrease consumption of unhealthy foods high in saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars. They have also been linked with better behaviour at school and a decrease in aggression, anxiety and depression.
In Finland, school food programs are linked to the curriculum and are used to teach children about nutrition, health and table manners. Every Finnish child is provided with a healthy meal daily, containing all food groups, with the aim of increasing health, well-being and concentration on school work.
Because children’s eating habits are more easily influenced than those of adults, interventions aimed at children are more likely to have societal impacts. Therefore, school food programs have the potential to reduce future health-care costs.
The federal government has declared the childhood obesity epidemic a priority to address. What better way to do this than to give children daily access to healthy foods while teaching them about nutrition and the importance of a healthy diet? By implementing additional measures in schools (e.g., offering more courses in home economics), children would truly be spending most of their waking hours in settings that reinforce healthy eating behaviours.
For these reasons, the expansion of school food programs in Canada has been proposed by numerous experts, including the former United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Ontario’s Healthy Kids Panel and Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada’s former chief public health officer. Recommendation 17 of the Senate’s report Obesity in Canada calls on the minister of health, working with provincial and territorial counterparts and non-governmental organizations already engaged in these initiatives, to “advocate for childcare facility and school programs related to breakfast and lunch programs…and nutrition literacy courses.”
The Coalition for Healthy School Food is urging the federal government to invest in the health of our children by investing in school food programs. We are always looking for new members and supporters, and we invite nursing associations and other groups of health professionals to join us.