Providing healthy school food would support all families, and a buy-Canada focus would help the agriculture, food service and construction sectors.

In light of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s $2 billion investment to support school re-opening safely across the country, school food advocates would still like to see the federal government create a dedicated school food fund to support the development of a national school food program, an initiative that was promised in the 2019 budget.

Seventy-seven percent of countries offer meals to students at school. Canada is the only G7 country without a harmonized national school food program to guarantee the consistent delivery of nutritious meals to students. In 2017, UNICEF raised the alarm about the state of child nutrition in Canada, ranking us 37 out of 41 wealthy nations for children’s access to nutritious food.

Now more than ever during COVID-19, school meals play an important role in supporting child health and the wellbeing of all children. A buy-Canada approach for a  national school food program could stimulate activity in agriculture, food service and construction sectors, creating jobs and supporting families across all economic stratums. Freeing Canadians from having to purchase food for children attending school would leave more money in their pockets and has the potential to decrease food insecurity, a challenge experienced by one in eight Canadian households prior to COVID-19.

As there are schools in every community, a universal national school food program would be a geographically equitable way to support families, industries, and the long-term vitality of local economies and food systems across Canada.

The creation of jobs

A national school food program could re-employ thousands of chefs and food workers to support the hard-hit food services sector. Across the country, groups have mobilized to arrange meals for students and families through preparation in commercially licensed school kitchens and in restaurants in partnership with school districts.

A national school food program could employ approximately 62,000 food service workers, according to a March 2019 analysis. The Arrell Food Institute’s Report on School Food and Nutrition in Canada (2020) noted that relying on volunteers to prepare daily meals is insufficient to reliably plan and deliver comprehensive food and nutrition programs. In addition to chefs, a number of other positions would need to be filled, including staff for program administration, and dietitians to aid in menu creation, nutritional monitoring, and evaluation.

Developing such a program could also support the construction and manufacturing industries through the purchase and installation of Canadian-made appliances and equipment. Most elementary schools do not have the necessary kitchen and cafeteria/designated facilities for eating. These retrofits along with the construction of other school food infrastructure such as greenhouses and vegetable gardens, would support Canadian industries.

Support for our agri-food sector

In Ontario, 3,400 jobs could be created if locally grown produce were expanded to replace 10 percent of the top 10 fruit and vegetable imports, according to a 2015 study. That includes apples, peppers, carrots, cauliflower, and strawberries, all staples in school food. The move would increase the provincial gross domestic product by $250 million. If this were done across the country, the impact would be significant.

A preliminary University of Guelph study estimated that a national school food program could contribute $4.8 billion to the Canadian agri-food sector over 10 years if 30 percent of, say, an annual budget of $1.6 billion were spent on domestic food purchases. This target of 30 percent locally grown foods – which is being exceeded by programs such as the Northern (Ontario) Fruit and Vegetable Program – could be developed by each province/territory, specific to the region and circumstances, to motivate the procurement of local, healthy food in schools. This emphasis on local food purchasing or a “farm-to-school” approach to school food has taken off across Canada, showing promise for an impact on a large scale.

In Scotland, shortening food supply chains and protecting local business through school food procurement are part of that country’s green recovery strategy, an approach that our economy would benefit from as well while supporting a more resilient food system. In France, a growing number of French city councils have gone so far as creating their own “municipal farms” to source affordable local food for schools in response to concerns over the low nutrition value of school food provided by private catering companies.

As economic experts have stated, governments must act short-term but think long-term with their stimulus investments. A national school food program would do that. The passage of a bill like the School Food for Children Act – a private member’s bill that was tabled earlier this year in the House of Commons – has the potential to help get our economy back on track while building a legacy of improved public health for generations to come.

When the majority of the developed world was implementing National School Lunch Programs in the 1930s and 1940s as a response to the Great Depression – the biggest economic crisis of the last century – Canada did not choose this path. Now, in response to our own economic crisis due to COVID-19, let’s make this overdue program a reality. An investment in a national school food program today is an investment in a stronger Canada tomorrow.

Jess Haines, an associate professor in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph, contributed to this article.

Photo: Shutterstock.com, by Iryna Melnyk.