Now that the holiday break is over for many school children, it’s time to return to the routine of school lunches and early morning breakfasts. But new data suggests that for many families with children, this may be difficult.

Food insecurity has soared to record levels, with the cost of housing pushing many to cut back on nutrition. In the face of these financial uncertainties, the demand for both immediate relief and sustainable solutions becomes increasingly pressing.

Canada needs a national school food program. This will serve as a remedy for affordability issues but will also be an investment in the nation’s future. School food won’t solve food insecurity, but it will take pressure off household budgets while improving children’s health, education and long-term economic outcomes.

According to an Employment and Social Development Canada survey on the development of a national school food policy, 96 per cent agreed that school food programs are beneficial. The report also recognized “expanding access to healthy and nutritious food could benefit all Canadian children.”

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The Liberal government has committed to a national program since its federal budget in 2019 and it was part of the Liberals’ election platform in 2021. Yet, none of these promises has materialized.

A $200-million investment toward school food in the 2024 budget would be the first step toward fulfilling the election promise of $1 billion over five years. This would represent a fraction of the government’s overall expenditures in 2023. It would also provide relief to families while building a legacy of improved public health.

Financial relief and economic growth

In Manitoba, the newly elected NDP government has pledged to fund a school nutrition program for all Manitoba schools at a cost of $30 million. Full details are expected later this year. Perhaps this could be a model for the rest of Canada.

Implementing a national program covering breakfast and lunch would save household budgets $130 to $190 a month per child for most families. For households with two children, that’s about $3,780 in savings per school year.

Unlike temporary financial interventions like the one-time grocery rebate, a national  program guarantees sustained relief throughout the academic year, allowing families to focus on other essential needs like housing and utilities. This becomes a much more strategic and long-term solution.

A national program also has the potential to stimulate the creation of as many as 207,700 jobs. Investments in school meal programs in other countries have led to the creation of additional jobs in agriculture, nutrition and program administration. This contributes to economic growth and can reduce unemployment.

Furthermore, by adopting a “farm-to-school” program similar to those in the United States, Canada could support local farmers and suppliers. The U.S. Agriculture department estimates that every dollar spent on “farm-to-school” programs generates $2.16 of local economic activity.

Similarly, every dollar spent in British Columbia on provincially grown food in public institutions brings back twice that amount to the economy.

Helping women

For parents, school-provided meals can be a lifeline. There is a gendered component to be considered as well. Women statistically invest more time preparing food for school. A universal program could reduce financial stress, save time and provide peace of mind.

This could have important implications for women’s working lives. For example, in Sweden, access to universal free lunch throughout primary school increased mothers’ labour market participation by as much as five per cent.

As a result, this investment fosters gender equality by creating opportunities for women to thrive professionally. The economic benefits of increased labour-market participation among mothers contribute not only to individual households but also to the broader economic landscape.

The overall return on investment

A national school food program provides a return on investment. Evidence from high-income countries where these programs exist suggests a substantial return of up to seven times in improved human health and economic benefits.

In Sweden, a nine-year initiative of universal free school lunch in the 1960s resulted in substantial long-term benefits, positively influencing children’s economic, educational and health outcomes. The reform resulted in a three-per-cent increase in lifetime earnings for participating students.

Notably, the positive impact of school meals was most significant for economically disadvantaged students. There was a 5.8-per-cent increase in lifetime earnings. The benefit-to-cost ratio of Sweden’s universal free school lunch program is twice that of the Head Start program in the U.S., emphasizing the program’s economic efficiency.

Developing a national program is a strategy that would help address affordability issues in Canada. It would provide financial relief for families and improve educational and health outcomes. It would also be good for long-term economic growth, creating jobs and promoting gender equality. School food is an investment in a prosperous and economically resilient Canada in the future.

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Amberley T. Ruetz
Amberley Ruetz is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Saskatchewan. X: @amberleyruetz
Evan Fraser
Evan Fraser is director of Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph.

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