By: Regina Dickson
Brent Thompson’s weekly visits to the Yonge Street Mission, a Toronto Centre food bank, are seldom stress-free. The 55-year-old’s back injury left him relying on Wheel-Trans. Difficulties with the transit service mean that his breakfast some mornings consists of a cup of coffee and a serving of frustration. The food bank helps Thompson save money for his 16-year-old son’s school lunches, but he says a free school lunch program would be even better.
“We have to give my son money to buy his lunch every day at school and there are times when it’s neck and neck, whether we have enough to do that every day. So [the free lunch program] would make a huge difference for me and my ex,” he said.
Thompson is not alone in calling for a national school food program. Senators, activists and expert health organizations such as Diabetes Canada have all advocated for one since the 1990s. The new Canada’s Food Guide is a step in the right direction, said one expert.
“As soon as I saw the guide, I thought, boy, you have a guide like that, the next step has to be a national school food program,” said Debbie Field, co-ordinator at the Coalition for Healthy School Food and a visiting practitioner at Ryerson.
Field said the new food guide sets the guidelines, which the federal government expects all public institutions, including schools, to follow. Having a national school food program, feeding kids and teaching them food literacy is a natural next step, she said.
On March 19, the federal government released its new budget, which includes a commitment to work towards a national school food program with the provinces and territories. This, however, is only a commitment, without any funding.
Field said that this new step is important, despite the lack of funds.
“It’s not enough, but it makes a bit of sense, given everything in Canada in terms of jurisdictional responsibility,” Field said. “In fact, if they had jumped in and put some money on the table before they negotiated with the provinces and territories, in the end, that could’ve backfired too.”
Field urged all political parties to include the program as part of their platforms in the upcoming federal election.
The Ryersonian made efforts to contact the three main parties for comment, however, only heard back from two. Andrea Horwath, provincial NDP Opposition leader, said that the current (provincial) government lacks “priority and focus” in policy on access to food.
“I think that there’s obviously work that needs to be done (federally),” she said. Although implementation usually happens at the provincial or municipal levels of government, “it doesn’t let the federal government off the hook.”
Stephen Lecce, parliamentary assistant to Premier Doug Ford, said that “the biggest impediment to food affordability is increasing taxes.” He said he believes that carbon taxation will raise the price of groceries, “so our hope is that the federal government heeds our concerns for affordability of food.”
The issue at stake
Food insecurity is an overlooked crisis in Canada, affecting one in six children, according to Household Food Insecurity in Canada research released by the University of Toronto in 2018. A 2017 UNICEF report on children’s access to nutritious food ranked Canada 37th out of 41 high-income countries. Canada remains the only G7 country without a national standard for school food.
Field says times have changed and Canada needs a national school food program now more than ever. Women’s participation in the workforce has more than tripled, she noted, so stay-at-home moms with time to prepare lunch for their kids every day are less common than they were in the 1950s.
Field said that the growth of the fast food business over the past 60 years has meant less healthy eating, as people try to save time. Having free nutritious lunches at school would ensure that children are not relying on fast food in their daily diets.
Finally, she pointed out that a national school food program is needed because kids spend more time at school today than they did in the ‘50s. Back then, children had one hour to go home for lunch. Today, they get as little as 20 minutes, so children don’t have enough time to go home or go out for a nutritious meal.
Field is also no fan of the long hours children are held “captive” in schools.
“We would never hold adults in a meeting for that many hours without feeding them. We know their brains wouldn’t work, they would fall asleep,” she said.
Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam told the Ryersonian that the city’s student nutrition program is groundbreaking. No statistics are available for the new Ward 13, which Wong-Tam represents, but within the boundaries of her former ward, only eight out of 28 schools had a student nutrition program in 2016.
How the government is meeting the need
Field insists that change is in the air. A year ago, she said, most federal politicians viewed a national school food program as outside of their jurisdiction. Now, however, they are “beginning to understand that they don’t have to do it alone, but in partnership with provinces and cities and parents.”
Don Davies, the federal NDP health critic, said he thinks a national school food program is a good idea and is “long overdue.” Davies is currently working on drafting legislation that would create a national school food program, in hopes of including it as part of the NDP 2019 federal election platform.
What still needs to happen
Retired senator Art Eggleton, who last year introduced a Senate motion calling for a national youth nutrition program, said provincial school food programs vary across the country.
“We need to develop a national standard,” said Eggleton, who has advocated for a national program for more than 20 years.
Field said for a national school food program to be fully implemented, the federal government needs to make it a priority to come up with the funding. The Coalition for Healthy School Food estimated the cost to be $1.8 billion.
She said the next step for the federal government right now is to begin to set up meetings with the provinces, territories and other groups, and think through what the best funding options are.
Field said she is excited and will be celebrating this new step at Ryerson on March 28, alongside MP Julie Dabrusin. She is calling on all Ryerson students to join the celebration at 2:30 p.m. in the Student Learning Centre.