Health Benefits of School Food Programs: An Overview of Canadian Research
The following summary of research has been shared by Rachel Engler-Stringer, Ph.D, Associate Professor, Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, College of Medicine, University of Saskatchewan. Rachel is also the Convenor of the Canadian Association for Food Studies School Food Working Group. She sits on the Steering Committee of the Coalition for Healthy School fod as the academic representative.
When the Coalition for Healthy School Food communicates the need for a National School Food Program, we often hear the question “what evidence do you have?” This blog post shares a brief summary of Canadian research on the health benefits of school food programs.
Research shows that the diet quality of Canadian children across the socio-economic spectrum during school hours is poor .
Only a small proportion of Canadian children meet the 2007 Canada’s Food Guide recommendations; low vegetable and fruit consumption are of particular concern [2,3].
Families struggle to introduce minimally processed healthy foods for a variety of reasons [4-6].
Provision of healthy school lunches is challenging in the context of parents working long hours [7,8], and families are struggling to adopt healthy food behaviours .
Parents may rely on highly processed foods, that are low in key nutrients but high in salt, sugar and fat, to cope with demands on time .
Introduction of healthy foods in a universal school food program can give all children greater opportunities to learn about and eat healthy foods in a way that is not stigmatizing .
Socioeconomic Status (SES) affects overall dietary intake  and school food programs can reduce disparities in vegetable and fruit consumption between children from higher versus lower SES households  and limit intake of minimally nutritious foods among higher SES households .
Studies have demonstrated a wide range of health, dietary, and behavioural impacts from school food programs.
International research on the health and dietary behaviour impacts of school food programs in high-income countries finds modest positive effects overall, including higher vitamin intakes and increased vegetable and fruit consumption, especially in younger children [13-16].
Extensive research from various parts of the world that compares the nutritional quality of food consumed at school that was brought from home versus food acquired through school food programs has found that school food programs provide healthier food overall (regardless of the SES of child participants) [17-24].
Studies on school food programs and academic achievement, attendance, tardiness, and drop-out rates point to important impacts of school food programs. Attendance and tardiness appear to be most affected, but some studies have found improvements in academic achievement with the introduction of school food programs [25-35].
School food programs can contribute to teaching about culinary heritage, social norms around food, and environmental sustainability [36-38].
Our team at the University of Saskatchewan’s soon to be published research characterized lunches in randomly selected urban schools with a meal program, urban schools without a meal program and rural schools without a meal program in the Saskatoon region.
Just over 1/2 of students met recommendations for grain products and meat and alternatives, less than 1/3 met recommendations for vegetables and fruit, under ¼ met recommendations for whole grains, and even fewer met recommendations for milk and alternatives.
The overall diet quality scores of students in meal programs were greater because they included whole grains, met meat and alternatives recommendations, and had fewer minimally nutritious foods.
Children not participating in meal programs brought about 1/3 of calories as minimally nutritious foods, about double that of meal program student lunches.
Our team has also just completed data collection on a survey of attitudes and preferences with regards to school food programming of over 500 caregivers of children. That data will be analyzed in early 2020 and preliminary results should be available soon!
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