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Big Picture Insights: Implementing a School Food Program for Canada

Updated: Dec 14, 2021

This year’s planning meeting for the Coalition for Healthy School Food began with a panel presentation from three speakers who shared their big picture insights on implementing a School Food Program for Canada.

Courtney Wheelton, from First Nations Initiatives, Yukon First Nation Education Directorate, and Heather Mullen, from the PEI Home and School Federation, shared inspiring stories of their work in Canada, and Dr. Donald Bundy, from the Research Consortium for School Food and Nutrition in the UK, spoke about the evidence for school food programs as well as the School Meals Coalition, a global initiative for school meals. Taken together the three panelists provided inspiration to advance healthy meals for all children in Canada.

Courtney Wheelton is a member of the Tahltan Nation and is the Project Manager, First Nations Initiatives, Yukon First Nation Education Directorate (YFNED).

  • Courtney provided an overview of the work of YFNED, a First Nation organization that was launched in 2020 and is guided by the values of substantive equality, which includes First Nations Peoples being decision makers on issues that affect First Nations children, youth, families and communities. They also center children’s well being in everything they do, “everyday we ask what is best for our children, and then follow through on that action.”

  • Courtney highlighted one of the program areas within their holistic offering of services, Urban and Rural Nutritional Services. Funded through Jordan’s Principle federal commitments, the program aims to offer breakfasts and hot lunches, snacks, traditional foods, feasts, and food hampers to all Indigenous children in Yukon Territory. They also provide resources for upgrading community kitchen facilities and training of local cooks. This program now runs in 12 rural communities and 14 urban schools in Whitehorse. The strong partnerships they have between schools, supermarkets, local restaurants and caterers has been essential to their success across the territory.

Heather Mullen is the President of the PEI Home and School Federation.

  • Heather shared their advocacy journey as well as tips on attaining a new universal healthy school food program for the province of Prince Edward Island.

  • Heather reflected on how much they have been able to accomplish since 2015, when a resolution was passed by the Federation to create a provincial school lunch program for all children on PEI.

  • She noted that their work has been supported by the Federation’s participation in the Coalition, and learning from other Coalition members’ models such as Newfoundland and Labrador’s School Lunch Association.

  • Building on strong relationships with agriculture, businesses and government, and inspired by encouragement from Chef Tony Geraci (Cafeteria Man documentary), the Federation created Guiding Principles for their desired school food program. These principles then supported their advocacy with stakeholders, including government, and led to the province-wide adoption of a pay-what-you-can universal school lunch program.

  • A new non-profit was created in July 2021 to oversee the school food program Bon Appétit, and become a place of school food expertise into the future. “We all feel very strongly that we want this organization to be around for our grandchildren.” The new organization aspires to be the ‘go-to’ place for information about a healthy and inclusive food culture on PEI.

Dr. Donald Bundy is a Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Director of the Research Consortium for School Food and Nutrition in the UK.

  • The Research Consortium is currently working to develop a 10-year independent research strategy on worldwide school health and nutrition.

  • The Research Consortium is an initiative supported by the global School Meals Coalition, launched this September at the UN Food Systems Summit, and its goals of restoring pre-pandemic coverage by 2023 and helping ensure that every child worldwide has access to a nutritious school meal by 2030, the deadline to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

  • Dr Bundy shared why school meal programs are such an important investment for countries, calling school meals “the most extensive social safety net in the world.” He spoke to how “we need to take care of the learner, as well as the learning. When we’re at school, that’s also a very important time to worry about our health and nutrition and that’s why school meals can be so very important.”

  • He noted the catastrophic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on school children worldwide, and how the pandemic has “highlighted school meals as a priority for safely opening schools, creating human capital and promoting economic development” across countries.

These three inspirational panelists provided an excellent springboard to the strategic conversations that followed. Later in the day Coalition members participated in small groups, including provincial and territorial meetings, to discuss how to support the Government of Canada in advancing the Liberal party’s election commitment of $1 billion for school food programs over 5 years, and how this dovetails with progress towards meeting different SDGs.

The presentation slides from this panel can be found here along with the recording.

Blog By Kirsti Tasala, PhD student, Lakehead University

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