As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to raise concerns about food insecurity among students and their families, advocates are calling on the federal government to commit to a national school meal program.
“In a way, Canada has an opportunity to design the best school food program in the world without a kind of top-down cookie-cutter model,” school food worker Debbie Field told The Current’s Matt Galloway.
To date, Canada is the only G7 country without a national school meal program. In 2017, UNICEF ranked Canada 37th out of 41 wealthy countries for kids’ access to nutritious food.
But Field, co-ordinator of the Montreal-based non-profit Coalition for Healthy School Food, said work is underway to change that.
Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and Karina Gould, the federal minister of families, children and social development, are talking about a national school meal program, she said.
“We’re meeting with senior policy people and politicians of all parties because this is non-partisan.”
In a statement to The Current, a spokesperson for Gould said: “Minister Gould and Minister Bibeau’s work to develop a national policy is underway,” although no official deadline was given.
The spokesperson added that developing such a policy “will be informed by robust engagement with experts and stakeholders, as well as developed in collaboration with provinces, territories, municipalities and Indigenous partners.”
In December, Bibeau and Gould were tasked by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with developing a national school food policy and a national school nutritious meal program.
This followed Trudeau’s election platform commitment of spending $1 billion over five years to “work with our provincial, territorial, municipal, Indigenous partners and stakeholders to develop a national school food policy and work towards a national school nutritious meal program.”
Field believes this is a game-changer for Canadian schools, most of which she says have had to rely on community support and individuals to run makeshift food programs.
“It’s only through a universal school food program that all of us parents of all incomes can ensure that our kids will … access healthy school food and … learn about healthy school food … and have a different approach to their health for the rest of their lives,” she said.
According to a 2020 report from Statistics Canada, almost one in seven Canadians live in households where there was food insecurity.
Amanda Rouse was one such Canadian at one point. She grew up in poverty in southern New Brunswick, and has seen how her community rallied together when neighbours have extra food to share.
“I think that really impacted me as a person, and it’s something that I’ve carried with me my entire life,” she said.
[Kids] should be able to have a full belly and not have to worry about whether they’re going to have supper or whether they can concentrate to get a good education.– Amanda Rouse
It’s why — in light of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns — she started a volunteer lunch delivery program for children in and around Kennebecasis Valley, N.B.
She’s working with local schools, the local police department and community volunteers and donors to feed approximately 60 kids lunch every day.
“A lot of families who maybe weren’t struggling before are now struggling because they can’t work,” she said. “So we’re just seeing it a lot more, and families are just really grateful for any bit of support that they can get at this time.”
This morning <a href=”https://twitter.com/mattgallowaycbc?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@mattgallowaycbc</a> asked what my home office looks like and here’s the answer! Packing lunches for 60 everyday is no joke ❤️<a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/KennebecasisCares?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#KennebecasisCares</a> <a href=”https://t.co/sslw0q2OvR”>pic.twitter.com/sslw0q2OvR</a>
It’s a similar story for education assistant Marlene Evans, who has co-ordinated the food program at James Nisbet Community School in Winnipeg for more than a decade.
“They look forward to coming in the morning, [and] I look forward to having them,” she said.
Evans said the school has two nutrition breaks, one for breakfast and one later in the day. She said students are given a brown bag with four or five food items that make up for two healthy meals — including milk, cereal and juice boxes.
She said running the program puts a smile on her face every morning.
“They love to choose four or five items, and off they go,” she said. “I tell them to have a wonderful day, and they’ll turn around and they say, ‘You too, Mrs. Evans.'”
But running these programs is hard work for both Evans and Rouse — and they can’t do it on their own, not even on a local scale.
That’s why the food program at James Nisbet Community School has had to rely on grants — some as much as $3,050 — in order to buy a variety of food necessary to satisfy any child’s appetite.
“Sometimes, when those grants run out, we have to look for many other places in our budget,” Evans said.
It’s also why Rouse — who relies on community support and donations to run her program — believes a national school food program is necessary. Not only would it alleviate some of the pressure on individuals, but it would also give kids a better opportunity for their futures.
“[Kids] should be able to have dignity,” Rouse said. “They should be able to have a full belly and not have to worry about whether they’re going to have supper or whether they can concentrate to get a good education.”
Field praised these kinds of local grassroots programs for doing their best despite limited funds.
“But now it’s time to up our game on this and make sure that it’s quality food, and that there’s staff and that [there are] kitchens and that all children can participate — which can happen in March 2022.”
Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Ryan Chatterjee, Arianne Robinson and Alison Masemann.