Patti Bacchus: We need a national school-meals program

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      In a city with thousands of busy restaurants and streets clogged with luxury cars, it’s perverse that so many families struggle to provide their kids with healthy meals. In schools, teachers use their own money to buy food for kids who show up hungry, and school districts struggle to feed those most in need with a patchwork of funding sources.

      It’s not just tough for urban families, either, when you consider how expensive good, fresh food is in many rural and northern communities.  

      As housing costs go up and wages for many stagnate, parents face hard choices when it comes to keeping a roof over their heads, paying high childcare costs, and making sure kids are eating decent meals. Some may have the money, but not the time, to make sure their kids are eating well.


      As a Vancouver school trustee, I was frustrated by the convoluted and time-consuming process we went through to determine which kids and schools would get subsidized or free meals.

      With limited government funding and a patchwork of donated money, we tried to make sure food was going to those who needed it most, but that’s easier said than done. As staff tried to chase down grants and ensure kitchen equipment was up to code and in working order, I was struck by how inefficient a system it was for something that should be much simpler.

      It’s easy to see that some schools have a high concentration of students from families living in poverty, but I guarantee there are kids in every public school whose families struggle to make ends meet and keep food on the table, on a regular basis, or sometimes temporarily. All it can take is a job loss, marriage breakup, illness, or an eviction notice to create a financial crisis for families who may appear to be getting by.

      The way we allocate the limited number of school meals that school boards can provide also risks creating a stigma for those who get them. Some parents need the support but are ashamed to ask for it, so their kids go without.

      And research shows Canadian kids are eating way too much processed food and not nearly enough fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods. Poor childhood eating habits put kids at risk of a lifetime of expensive health problems. Rushed families spend less time sitting down to home-cooked, nutritious meals together, while kids eat junk in front of screens. It’s bad news.

      The good news is there’s a straightforward public-policy solution that’s proven to be effective at countering these problems: universal, quality school food programs for all kids, not just those from poor families.

      That’s why federal NDP health critic and Vancouver-Kingsway MP Don Davies announced a plan this week to create a national school-food program for every child in the country. It sounds like an ambitious and expensive idea, but hear me out about why it makes an incredible amount of good old common sense.

      The benefits of universal school meal programs

      First off, we know hungry kids don’t learn well. We’re already spending thousands of dollars a year to educate kids, so it makes sense to fill their tummies with good food so they can concentrate and get the most of out of their publicly funded school days.

      We also know that not all food is created equal, and that eating processed, high-fat, salty, or sugary junk is bad for all of us, including kids. Having access to nutritious, fresh, and tasty food at school teaches kids that healthy food can be delicious too.

      When schools provide quality, culturally appropriate healthy meals, it also increases attendance rates and provides social benefits by having kids sit down to enjoy a meal together.

      We also know that more than half of high-school students don’t eat a healthy breakfast before heading to school, which puts them at risk of everything from learning problems to health issues to poor behaviour. Having healthy breakfast foods and snacks available at school can solve this problem.

      Research confirms that quality school-food programs lead to improved child and youth mental health and may contribute to reduced risk of things like cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and some cancers due to improved eating habits.

      Davies is working with a group called the Coalition for Healthy School Food, which links healthy eating habits to increased graduation rates, which have significant economic benefits and lead to lower health-care costs.

      Davies’s plan would teach kids to grow and prepare healthy meals

      I spoke to Davies by phone this week, and he told me that he envisions a program that doesn’t just feed kids but that also teaches them to grow food and prepare it. Those are important skills that could serve kids well through their lifetimes. Davies hopes to find support across party lines for his School Food Program for Children Act, which is a private member’s bill that he planned to introduce in Parliament today (the Liberals cancelled private members’ business today, but Davies tweeted that while his bill’s introduction is delayed, he is not deterred.)


      If passed—which private member’s bill seldom are, unfortunately—the program would be provided at little or no cost to families and would set out criteria for healthy food, based on Canada’s food guide. Davies told me the program would embed the issue of food and nutrition into school curriculum, including its growing, production, preparation, and eating.

      Davies told me that more than 1.5 million Canadian kids live in homes that struggle with food insecurity. He cited research and best practices from other countries, including Japan and Finland, where children learn to grow, cook, and serve balanced healthy meals at school, and Brazil, which works with small-scale, local farmers on its school-meal programs.

      Having been a school trustee in a chronically cash-strapped school district, I couldn’t agree more that we need federal leadership to bring all the various levels of government and stakeholders together to create a national food program. Davies views it as an investment, not just another expense. I do too.

      “We’re an international laggard,” Davies told me, and there’s a lot of research to back him up on that. Canada is one of just a few industrialized nations without a national school meals program. He’d love to see a Ministry of Food and wants to work with his fellow members of Parliament on a nonpartisan basis to make this program happen.

      A national school-food program would check off a lot of progressive public-policy boxes, including reducing poverty’s effects on children and giving kids from low-income families a better chance to succeed, improving physical and mental health for kids, and instilling positive eating habits that could last lifetimes.

      Having good food available at school would also reduce busy families’ financial and time pressures, expose kids to a wide range of healthy foods, remove the stigma of current food programs that are targeted only to kids from poor families, and support local food production.

      That’s a lot of bang for the bucks it would take to fund the program, and could actually save taxpayers’ money in the long run.

      Although private members’ bills seldom get far, I hope MPs from all parties can see this for the good idea it is and make it happen. Ensuring all kids develop healthy eating habits and have consistent access to nutritious foods would be a smart investment of the people's money.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.