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Five Minutes of Free Advice: American Pitfalls to Avoid in Canada’s School Food Program

by Jan Poppendieck, Senior Fellow at the CUNY Food Policy Institute and author of Free For All: Fixing School Food in America


Canada does not have a National School Food Program. Instead, some students in some schools are served food by a patchwork of programs, funded by provincial, municipal and private contributions. Some of these programs are also heavily reliant on food donations from stores and industry sponsors, leading to snack foods and shelf-stable products playing a large role in the diets of these students.


As Canada prepares to join the other G7 countries and the majority of the countries around the world in having a National School Food Program, it is timely to look at lessons from other school food programs. I have spent decades studying the United States’ school meal program and have been intrigued by the opportunity that Canada has to design a program informed by the lessons learned from the United States.


In light of the 2017 success in obtaining universal free school meals for 1.1 million public school students in New York City, and because of my book Free For All: Fixing School Food in America, Canadian food activists within the Coalition for Healthy School Food asked me to engage in a public forum to advocate for a National School Food Program, in line with Senator Art Eggleton’s resolution to the Canadian Senate that calls for a national nutrition program for youth.


On August 15, 2018, former Mayor of Toronto, Senator Eggleton, participated in Getting to Yes: National Nutrition Programs for Children and Youth Strategy Meeting. Here, Senator Eggleton explained that his resolution was a measure to promote health and education of Canadian youth, followed by briefer comments by myself, Toronto City Councillor, Joe Mihevc, and representatives of the Coalition for Healthy School Food and other organizations involved in school food programs. These presentations built the case for the need for the federal government to get involved in funding a universal cost-shared school food program for all children in Canada.


I was asked this Question: Given an opportunity to help design a National School Food Program that would avoid the pitfalls that have hampered programs in the United States, what would you recommend?


Here is the response I offered that day in 2018, in my “Five Minutes of Free Advice.” I hope and feel it remains relevant in today’s climate as well.

1. Framing. The Coalition for Healthy School Food is absolutely right to present this topic as a measure for health, learning, and community building. DO NOT CALL IT HUNGER. The positive health implications of school food programs on children are clear and and have been well summarized. The evidence on improved learning outcomes of such programs is compelling. Eating is an intimate act, and a well-designed school food program can bring students together and foster community. Think summer camp.

2. Universal is key. Canada must avoid the seductions of a means test, as is used in the United States to determine the income of a student’s family before they can qualify for free meals, and of visibly targeting youth who have grown up in low income households. A means test is often defended as “efficient,” but in fact it is profoundly inefficient, generating vast quantities of paperwork and documentation. A means test has no place in public schools and other youth programs, as it poisons the program. When kids reach pre-teen years, youth start to become acutely aware of socioeconomic distinctions. If the program becomes identified as something for the poor, even poor youngsters will forego it, or eat meals steeped in shame.

3. Listen to those most affected. I was glad to see you propose a consultative process for the development of a School Food Program, but consultation with parents, students, teachers, principals and cafeteria workers needs to be built into not only the design phase, but also the ongoing implementation and evaluation phases.

4. Nutrition standards. The need for ongoing consultation has implications for nutrition standards. Industry will likely push for a one-size fits all approach, but Canada is a very large country with many different traditions and ecological realities. What can be locally sourced, sustainably produced, and contribute to the strength of the local economy will surely vary. Salad bars have worked well in New York City—and superbly in California, but in Alaska, not so much. As such, choose standards but allow for community based solutions within those general nutritional standards.

5. Menu Planning. Nutrition is only one factor that affects the menu. Does a school have a lunchroom or cafeteria big enough to hold its students? If not, the school will need a menu with items that can be easily eaten in classrooms (i.e.,“grab and go”). Salad bars are great, but they take time. There would need to be a long enough lunch period to accommodate them.

6. Procurement. The United States made a huge mistake by requiring the lowest bid for products sold in school food programs. We are only now beginning to be able to consider and address sustainability, fair labor practices, and the local economy in our purchases.

7. Role of students. My all time favorite school lunch program is the one at Pacific Elementary in Davenport, California. The 5th graders prepared the school lunch; the 4th graders set the tables and decorated them with flowers from the school garden. It is important to think about school meals as whole-school activities, where students can get involved.

8. School food labor. School food jobs need to be “Good Food Jobs,” which are jobs that promote health and wellbeing for workers, including the provision of a living wage, comprehensive benefits, and can lead to fruitful careers.

I was pleased to read a quote from the Honourable Karina Gould, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, about her government's consultation on the creation of a National School Food Policy: “We know that a pan-Canadian approach to school food has the potential to improve the overall health of our children as they learn, leading to better futures for them and for Canada.” Every child should have access to the healthy food they need to grow and learn. Let us hope that the Canadian government learns from the negative experience of stigmatized programs in the United States as they develop a National School Food Program for the country.

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