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A Universal school food system for BC - Research by the Single Mothers Alliance

Updated: Dec 9, 2022

In June 2022 the Single Mothers’ Alliance of BC held three focus groups to explore the experience and views of low-income parents and caregivers regarding universal school food.

One of the focus groups was open to all parents and caregivers in BC and two focus groups targeted inner-city designated schools that have a higher concentration of low-income students in the City of Vancouver. A total of 19 diverse parents and caregivers from 13 schools attended the focus groups, the majority of whom identified as racialized and Indigenous mothers. With regards to income, 76% of participants identified as making below $40,000 annually and 15% of participants live on less than $10,000 per year.

The research was part of a three year process to inform the Coalition for Healthy School Food and Food Secure Canada’s work on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Participants were asked as a part of the discussion to share the top five SDGs they thought a universal school food program could contribute to achieving (see word cloud above) and then to elaborate on their vision for a program.

Key findings of the focus groups included that:

  • A universal school food system addresses a range of personal, financial, and social needs for the families who participated, particularly food security needs.

  • Access to healthy and nutritious meals accompanied by food literacy education is a priority for parents and caregivers across the board.

  • Parents and caregivers support the campaign for a universal school food system due to its potential to provide healthy and nutritious food to children regardless of their family’s income and status.

  • A universal school food program eliminates the shame and stigma associated with accessing targeted school food programs.

Participants in all of the focus groups emphasized the importance of food security and financial saving, as well as the time-saving benefits of school food programs for families and children. 

“There are just a lot of kids that would not for a variety of reasons get fed in my daughter’s school if it wasn’t for the food program. So how can we not support that? If we are really looking at social issues, kids are where we should be spending most of our money. And I think that this is a big budget item, it just should be.” - Focus group participant

When asked about their visions and dreams for school food the following statements summarize the perspectives that were shared:

  • The ideal school food system is a universal one that provides free, healthy, and culturally appropriate food to all children throughout the day, every day. A system in which children are automatically enrolled and have the option to opt-out if they do not wish to participate.

  • Teaching about Indigenous food and diverse food cultures was identified as an important component of a universal school food system.

  • All participant caregivers and parents rank food literacy and healthy eating as top priorities. Participants would like a universal school food system to emphasize the provision of and education about healthy foods at every school.

  • Most participants would like to see universal school food programs at their schools that involves students from food preparation to cleaning up. 

SDGs and universal school food program

Most participants were able to connect most of the SDG goals to the universal school food program during the discussions, but Goals 1 (No Poverty), 2 (Zero Hunger), 3 Good Health & Well-being, 10 (Reduced Inequality), and 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), were repeatedly mentioned as goals that would be met through the implementation of a universal school food program. Parents discussed the importance of school food programs in decreasing plastic waste associated with disposable lunch items and food packaging, thereby attaining SDGs connected to climate change and the environment. The lack of a stand alone goal for Indigenous reconciliation, however, has been raised as a major limitation of using SDGs to evaluate government actions on school food programs or any other programs in the country, as Indigenous people face unique challenges in all aspects of life that are rooted in colonialism and oppression.

For much more rich data from the conversations, including a breakdown of demographics of the participants and their detailed perspectives and visions, access SMA’s report here or check out a 30-minute presentation of the report and its findings from Viveca Ellis, SMA’s Executive Director.

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