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Going the Distance for Healthy School Food

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

By Brent Mansfield, Lord Roberts Elementary School Teacher, LunchLab Co-Founder

I am an elementary school teacher and I think we are currently failing our children in Canada by not having a national school food program. On Friday, October 27, I ran around my school 200 times, over 92km total, to call on the Government of Canada to go the distance by putting the $200 million they committed towards a national school food program, $1 billion over 5 years, in the next Budget.

As a passionate school food advocate, I’ve worked as part of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, which includes over 270 member organizations and 130 organizational endorsers in all provinces and territories. The Coalition and its members advocate for public investment in a universal healthy school food program that would ensure all K-12 students would have access to healthy food at school every day, following key guiding principles. I had the opportunity to be part of the founding meetings of the Coalition in November 2014 in Halifax, and was also part of the formation of the BC Chapter several years later.

Over the past 5 years I have helped create an educational lunch program called LunchLAB. LunchLAB empowers students to cook food for themselves and their peers with the mentorship of a team of chefs-in-residence. LunchLAB makes lunch an important learning opportunity rather than an interruption in the school day, such as it is seen to be in Japan. Globally, over 388 million children in at least 161 countries – 83% of all countries globally – receive free or subsidized school meals at school. When I asked students from the different classes I teach each week about their school lunch experiences, students had eaten lunch at school in 34 different countries, such is the diversity of my school, and most often these lunches were provided by the school. I hope LunchLAB and other programs like it can help spark imagination for what school food programs could look like if there was significant public investment and diverse school community partnerships to help the programs thrive. School food programs will look different in every community because every community is different. School food matters everywhere. Students matter everywhere, which is why we need a national program.

Despite all the known benefits of school food programs, Canada is the only country in the G7 without a national school food program. This lack of a national program has left many gaps in communities across Canada and is a massive missed opportunity. A UNICEF report card ranked Canada 37th out of 41 among the world’s richest countries when it comes to providing healthy food for kids. We must do better for our children.

The Canada Food Guide highlights the importance of not just what we eat, but how we eat and engage with food. This includes a focus on enjoying our food, eating meals with others, cooking more often, and supporting mindful eating habits. We must make sure we consider how to thoughtfully integrate these elements into school food programs so that they can achieve their full potential to support students to thrive.

All students benefit from participating in comprehensive school food programs. A teacher wouldn’t take only a couple of students on a field trip. Lunch can be an integrated learning experience with comprehensive benefits that any teacher would want for all their students. In Canada we need to build school food programs that are universally accessible and offer critical learning opportunities for students. Making school food programs universal, for all students, ensures stigma isn’t a barrier to participation. As other countries have learned, programs accessible to all students also reduce administrative costs. A report from the B.C. Teachers Federation called for a shift “from targeted to universal school food programs for all as key to addressing the potential stigma that children and their families who access school meal programs may face.”

Beyond the impact on students, school food programs can have broad, positive impacts on families, communities, and the economy by reducing household food costs, creating jobs, and strengthening sustainable food systems. A national school food program would join universal childcare and the Canada Child Benefit as crucial family supports, which are increasingly becoming critical with the current affordability crisis impacting so many.

The Province of B.C. recently committed $214 million over 3 years, the largest single investment in school food in Canadian history. I commend the Province of B.C. for their leadership, and hope that they are advocating to the Federal government and urging them to match provincial investments. B.C. has the opportunity to demonstrate a shared cost model. If he hasn’t already, I urge Premier Eby to include this in his next conversations with the Prime Minister. The new premier of Manitoba has committed to take action to create a program in his first 100 days in office. Now we need the Government of Canada to honour their commitment to create a national school food program to match the leadership being shown by provinces.

In 2021, the Canadian federal government committed $200 million per year for 5 years to develop a national school food policy and work towards a national school food program. Can we, at this critical moment in history, amidst an affordability crisis occurring across the country, recognize that an investment in school food has the opportunity to improve the future of Canada? Now is the time to go the distance for healthy school food.

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