There are many good reasons to endorse a national school food policy. First is to support school-aged children having access to the nutritious food they need for overall health and success at school. School food programs could help decrease parental stress about providing food for their kids while they are at school. As well, depending on how policy translates into action, a food program could foster positive attitudes and healthy relationships to food and eating. Other benefits include developing food literacy skills among students; creating jobs and promoting economic development; supporting local sustainable agriculture; reinforcing students’ awareness of, and connections to, culture; and more.

This is why we support a national school food policy. But it’s clear that the high rate of poverty and food insecurity among families with children cannot be fixed by a school food policy alone.

The federal government’s claim that school food programs could reduce food insecurity is concerning. This rhetoric was found in the initial budget announcement, discussion paper and consultation questionnaire about the development of a national school food policy. It was also  reiterated in the National Advisory Council on Poverty’s 2022 report. However, there is little evidence to support this claim.

Advocates for a national program cheered when it was announced that the ministers of agriculture and agri-food, and families, children and social development would work together along with provincial, territorial and municipal governments, Indigenous partners and other stakeholders on this policy. The Coalition for Healthy School Food is the main stakeholder, representing 220 non-profit organizations from every province and territory.

One of the coalition’s guiding principles is universality. This is the concept that all children should have access to food in a non-stigmatizing way, and that all children in Canada should enjoy the benefits of school food programs.

Universality is important. There are many reasons why kids might be hungry at school that have little to do with a lack of parental income. These include long bus rides, before- and after-school activities, early morning school starts that don’t give kids time to eat at home, lack of appetite in the morning and the energy demands of growing bodies during unpredictable growth spurts.

Universality eliminates the stigma associated with non-universal programs; it is stigma that keeps some hungry kids from accessing the food they need. When school food programs are targeted only to low-income kids, some parents may be reluctant to allow their children to participate for fear that they could be reported to provincial authorities because of lack of food in the home. This legitimate concern goes far beyond embarrassment, shame or “stigma.”

And yet, in the 2022 budget, the federal government framed their proposed policy as targeting “the most vulnerable” kids. The opening lines of the discussion paper on building a pan-Canadian school food policy links “too many” hungry children at school with “too many families” unable to “reliably access sufficient amounts of nutritious food.”

This suggests that the federal government may be planning a targeted approach rather than a universal one. It also suggests that the government may use the development of a school meal policy to stall on more effective ways of reducing the high rates of food insecurity among Canadian families.

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A universal program may alleviate the time and financial burdens associated with preparing school lunches and snacks. However, research conducted in high-income countries has been inconclusive about whether these programs reduce food insecurity.

One research project that sought to model the hypothetical effects of adopting a U.S.-style school food program in Canada found modest improvement for the most food insecure families in a “best-case” scenario. However, the study has a number of limitations. For example, the study did not include a cost-benefit analysis, nor did it account for the implications for other benefits that may decrease, which could leave hungry kids and their families no better off.

Earlier research from 2003 concluded that over the entire year, the effect of school food programs on food insecurity is limited. This makes sense considering that children would eat, at most, one meal per day, plus snacks, at school—but only when at school. It doesn’t include school absences, school closures or other breaks, summer holidays or professional development days.

Moreover, research shows mothers will do almost anything to protect their children from hunger. If a child shows up hungry at school, it’s likely the whole household is under significant stress. The presence of a hungry child is taken as a sign of the most severe form of food insecurity. School food programs do nothing to alleviate the hunger of parents, preschool age children or others in the household, nor the long list of expenses and bills that food insecure families struggle to pay.

Food insecurity is a problem of inadequate income and is one symptom of a broader problem of poverty. The provision of food will ease immediate needs, but it cannot reduce household food insecurity. A household with no food, limited food or an inconsistent food supply is struggling with many other issues, including paying rent or mortgage, utilities, medications and other expenses. Increasing household incomes is the only effective remedy.

We agree that “far too many” families are food insecure in Canada. Almost one-in-six children in this country live in food insecure households. Households headed by a BIPOC parent or with a single parent have even higher rates. This has profound effects on child health, including an increased risk of suicide ideation.

If the federal government is serious about its concern for families living in poverty, there are several different policy responses it can employ, starting with a redesign of the Canada Child Benefit to better support low-income families. Campaign 2000 has a comprehensive list of other reforms that could effectively reduce high child poverty rates in Canada, and thus household food insecurity. In their annual report card, No One Left Behind: Strategies for an Inclusive Recovery, recommendations include policy action on homelessness and affordable housing, set and geared-to-income child-care fees, increasing the minimum wage, employment insurance reform and greater investment in and services for First Nations and racialized communities.

The implementation of a national school food policy as laid out by the Coalition for Healthy School Food is a positive step. But it must be universal, and it must not be used as an excuse to avoid implementing other policies that deliver effective poverty reduction.

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Elaine Power is a professor in the school of kinesiology and health studies at Queen’s University.
Jennifer Brady is a registered dietitian and the director of the school of nutrition and dietetics at Acadia University.
Dian Day is a writer and a doctoral candidate in cultural studies at Queen’s University.

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