The IPE/BC welcomes the Prime Minister’s April 1 National School Meals Program announcement

The IPE/BC welcomes the Prime Minister’s April 1 National School Meals Program announcement

By Patti Bacchus

April 2, 2024

In our submission to the federal government’s 2024 budget consultation, the Institute for Public Education/ BC (IPE) called on the federal government to place an urgent priority on the implementation of a national, universal school food program, and we are pleased government has responded positively with its April 1 announcement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pledging a federal government investment of $1 billion over five years, with a target of expanding school meal programs to 400,000 more kids than are currently receiving school meals. 

The federal government has promised a school food program since 2019, and this is a good step forward, but it falls short of providing a universal food program, as recommended by the IPE. 

As the IPE quoted UNICEF Canada in our brief to the federal budget consultation, “Universal food programs provide the opportunity for all students to learn about food and nutrition literacy, the importance of healthy food choices, the role of food in community and culture, and the positive impact of taking time to share in meals together. 

“By providing school meals only to those students whose families/caregivers are not able to afford sufficient nutritious food, these benefits are lost to the student population as a whole. Additionally, while there may be well-intentioned efforts to eliminate stigma arising from a school food program based on socio-economic factors, the identification of those who ‘qualify’ for such a program ensures stigma is inevitable.”

What we know

As housing and food 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. Others may have the money, but not the time, to make sure their kids are eating well.

As a 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 kept up to code and in working order, I was struck by how inefficient a system it was for something that should be much simpler.

Some schools have a high concentration of students from families who live in poverty, but 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 break up, illness or an eviction notice to create a financial crisis for families who may appear to be doing fine.

The way we allocate the limited number of school meals that school boards can afford also risks creating a stigma for those who get them. Some parents need the support, but don’t want to ask for it, so their kids may go without.

And research also shows that 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. The Prime Minister’s announcement is a step in the right direction.

The benefits of universal school meal programs

Hungry kids don’t learn well. It’s hard to concentrate with a growling stomach. We’re already spending thousands of dollars a year to educate each student, 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 all food is not created (or manufactured) equally, 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 to all kids, it also increases attendance rates and provides social benefits by having kids sit down to enjoy a meal together.

We also know that over 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, health issues and poor behaviour.

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.

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

Having good food available at school would 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 save taxpayers’ money in the long run.

The Prime Minister can only keep this funding promise if he gets re-elected, and the IPE will be working to keep funding for universal school food programs on the agenda and platforms for all political parties as we head into the next federal election.

Patti Bacchus is a public education advocate, commentator, and IPE/BC Board member, who was also the Vancouver School Board’s longest-serving chair, from 2008-2014. She has also served on the Board of the Broadbent Institute. Patti has written extensively about public education issues in the Georgia Straight. She believes that a strong and well-resourced public education system is key to a healthy and just society.