• Chantelle Dacunha

Comprehensive, Integrated Food and Nutrition Programs in Canadian Schools


Last year, The Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph released Comprehensive, Integrated Food and Nutrition Programs in Canadian Schools, a report that describes considerations and puts forward recommendations for a healthy and sustainable approach to implementing nutrition programs in Canada. It discusses current Canadian food and nutrition programs and identifies gaps and opportunities, as well as design and implementation recommendations for a national school food program. The report was led by Scientific Co-Leads Jess Haines, Ph.D., University of Guelph Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, and Amberley T. Ruetz, Ph.D. Candidate University of Guelph Department of Geography.


Children participating in a cooking workshop at The Dépôt Community Food Centre. Photo credit: The Dépôt Community Food Centre

The authors describe how eating a healthy diet is critical for the short-and-long-term health benefits of children. They state that a powerful way to ensure these benefits is to implement a comprehensive and integrated national school food program, which will effectively increase food access and support healthy consumption practices among children and youth.


The report recommends designing an integrated and comprehensive national school food program that is universal, complemented with nutrition education (K-12 curricula), and that promotes healthy eating habits through hands-on food literacy and meal programs. The authors suggest that local communities, school administrations, and Indigenous communities should continue to have autonomy, and be sufficiently funded and supported with the necessary physical infrastructure and human resources (which aligns with the Coalition’s Guiding Principles).


The authors argue that policy actions can contribute to this goal by convening cross-ministry working groups to provide comprehensive support to school food programs; creating harmonized nutrition standards that are fully implemented, monitored, and regularly evaluated; and enhancing current curriculum and training.


The report outlines gaps and opportunities to consider when designing a national school food program:


Gaps:

  • Food, Nutrition, and Poverty: Although policy experts advise that income-based solutions are most effective to address household food insecurity as they manage the root problem of poverty, the report argues that food-based interventions can still be part of the solution. School meal programs do not directly impact food insecurity; however, they support families and caregivers and provide opportunities for learning and building food skills. These factors can all be part of a comprehensive solution to food insecurity.

  • Curriculum: Especially with the release of the 2019 Canada Food Guide current curricula are outdated; curriculum development and support are crucial in developing an integrated school food program.

  • Funding: Most programs currently run in Canada do not receive enough funding. To offer and maintain successful and meaningful school food programs, these programs need consistent funding from all levels of government in a way where there is collaboration and coordination among authorities.

  • Training and Human Resources: Programs need sufficient and stable funding for physical infrastructure and human resources so that they can move away from the reliance on frontline education staff and volunteers. Trained food preparation staff and nutrition experts need to be hired to ensure the sustainability and quality of programs to include food literacy learning opportunities.

  • Infrastructure: Funding must also be allocated for food production facilities as well as for in-school infrastructure that can support food literacy activities and the preparation of meals and snacks.

Opportunities:


  • Improving Health and Reducing Health Care Costs Across Canada: A comprehensive school food program has the potential to improve the overall health of Canadian children and decrease health care costs by investing in preventive action.

  • Supporting Local Food Systems and Canada's Agri-Food Sector: A compressive school food program can connect to local food systems, contributing to security, health, and beneficial environmental impacts.

  • Knowledge Sharing and Policy for Impact: Canada has a unique opportunity to support collaboration, networking and sharing of school food program experiences across the country so as to learn from them and emerge as a global leader. The Coalition for Healthy School Food is hearing best practices from school food programs worldwide; click here to learn more.

  • Intergovernmental Collaboration for Harmonization: To effectively implement a comprehensive program, different agencies and ministries at the federal, provincial-territorial, and municipal levels will need to collaborate with one another.

The report concludes that “a universal and comprehensive National School Food Program is a critical step in providing children with healthy, safe food, reducing child and household food insecurity, teaching food skills, and supporting local food systems”.

The evidence is clear — the time for a universal and comprehensive National School Food Program in Canada is now. Let’s #NourishKidsNow


Photo credit: The Dépôt Community Food Centre

The report was informed by several workshops with invited experts and it is part of a series of papers produced by the Arrell Food Institute and the Research Innovation Office at the University of Guelph. The interdisciplinary group of academics, professionals, and local community partners focused their discussions on the principles and policies necessary for taking a healthy and sustainable approach to crafting comprehensive, integrated food programs in Canadian schools. Attendees of the two workshops consisted of academics, technical experts, government, and industry, all of which assisted in forming and revising the report. Please refer to the report for a complete list of participants.


In addition to this report, The Arrell Food Institute has also released School Food and Nutrition: The Brief, which is a policy brief highlighting the key points of the report.


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