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Coalition for Healthy School Food calls for healthy COVID-19 School Food Guidelines

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

The Coalition for Healthy School Food is concerned that as schools reopen in the fall, Ministry of Education and school board guidelines across provinces and territories will limit fresh food served in school food programs, restrict students from cooking and growing their own food at school, and restrict community agencies, volunteers and parents, who are essential to making school food programs happen, from being allowed into schools.

We worry that school boards, in an effort to ensure food safety, will require school food programs to serve only unhealthy packaged and prepared foods, which are often highly processed, contain additives and preservatives, are not in line with the recommendations in Canada’s Food Guide, are often imported rather than produced in Canada and can be much more expensive than fresh ingredients.

As a Coalition of more than 128 health, education, Indigenous and environmental organizations from every province and territory, we are calling on provincial medical officers of health and local health and educational professionals to set guidelines for school food programs this fall that balance COVID-19 safety with allowing healthy meals rich in vegetables and fruit, as recommended by Canada's 2019 food guide, to be served. See our media release.

Credit: Tyler Gallant; profiled in CBC article "Province widening access to local, healthy, affordable school lunches"

The question that we’re asking is how do we make sure that our students have access to fresh, healthy food at school while addressing concerns around food safety and COVID-19?

We know that prioritizing healthy food is possible, and that momentum is growing.

The Coalition congratulates the PEI government for recognizing the need for healthy school lunches and that the government will "really encourage a healthy, balanced plate with a quarter of your meal being protein, a quarter of your meal being whole grains, and half your plate being fruits and vegetables," according to Katelyn MacLean, school food manager and dietitian with the PEI Department of Education as quoted by the CBC.

“The School Lunch Association in Newfoundland and Labrador is pleased to announce that they will be serving a “hot nutritious lunch” to children upon the return to school this fall. Early concerns had the Association planning for a pre-packaged cold meal for its participants, however, their proposal for operations was welcomed as a result of cooperative dialogue with officials at the NL English School District, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development as well as the Office of the Chief Medical Health Officer. It was determined that with additional safety measures in place, serving a hot nutritious lunch is both feasible and extremely beneficial to children’s overall health and well being” said John Finn, the Executive Director of the School Lunch Association.

And in British Columbia, the BC Centre for Disease Control and VCH Environmental Health has removed the statement "Eliminate group food preparation activities" from the WorkSafeBC re-opening guidance for K-12 when it determined that this restriction was not necessary.

The Coalition’s mandate is to seek federal investment in a Universal Cost-Shared Healthy School Food program that would see all children having daily access to healthy food at school. Our members also advocate for funding and support for school food programs from provinces, territories and municipalities. Coalition members believe that a national school food program should be health promoting and model the revised Canada’s Food Guide by providing a substantial amount of whole foods, in particular vegetables and fruit, as well as enable students to learn about nutrition and food skills such as food growing, preparing, budgeting and other themes in order to have the skills to eat healthier diets.

“My son is lucky enough to attend a school in the Comox Valley, BC which has a salad bar program and I have seen young children gobble up fresh vegetables and fruit.” said Maurita Prato, Executive Director, LUSH Valley Food Action Society. “I know the health and well-being of students will be at risk if the students are not involved in preparing food and if parent volunteers are not involved in supporting the operation of the salad bar and other healthy meal programs this fall.”

Only one-third of children aged four to 13 eat five or more servings of fruit and vegetables, and a quarter of children’s caloric intake is from foods not recommended by even the 2007 edition of Canada’s Food Guide (1). A recent survey found that only 10% of youth in grades 6-12 met fruit and vegetable recommendations. Media are now reporting that COVID-19 has even exacerbated poor diets, leading families to eat more pre-packaged and processed food than before. Our kids are not ok. There is a real concern that our children will live shorter and sicker lives than their parents because of an increase in the rate of illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other preventable diseases, most of which are closely linked to dietary choices. Making this situation even worse, many experts are now pointing to diet-related conditions including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes as being among the biggest risk factors for sickness and mortality from COVID-19.

In summary, the Coalition for Healthy School Food recommends that:

  1. The federal government work towards its Budget 2019 commitment to implement a national healthy, universal school food program so that all children and youth can have access to healthy food at school and increase their immune system defences against COVID-19.

  2. Provinces and school boards allow healthy food to be served in schools by ensuring that reopening guidelines balance schools’ abilities to serve healthy, fresh foods and continue food literacy activities while meeting COVID-19 safety requirements.

It takes a village to raise a healthy child, which is why the Coalition believes in local partnerships to encourage healthy eating. We call on health and educational experts to develop school food policies that encourage healthy eating and youth engagement while being COVID-19 compliant. As in the case of community gardens, farmers’ markets, and many other services deemed essential, we are confident that it is possible to balance the serving of healthy food in schools with COVID-19-safe guidelines.

We don’t need to subject students to foods that are known to be unhealthy and to contribute towards an even bigger health crisis in the future. We can do much better.

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