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Post-election advocacy efforts and evolving School Food landscape during COVID

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

Notes from the Coalition for Healthy School Food meeting on October 29, 2021.

The recording of this meeting can be accessed here.

By Juliette Clochard, Food Secure Canada

As school food programs reopen across Canada this fall, and with much good news after the recent federal election, Coalition members from across Canada came together to discuss the outcomes of the election and what they mean for implementing a School Food Program for Canada with federal funding and standards.

The meeting started with presentations on School Food Programs during COVID from Simone Jennings, RD, Public Health Dietitian, BC Interior Health; Erin Beagle, Executive Director, Roots to Harvest in Thunder Bay Ontario; and Thibaud Liné, Executive Director, La Cantine pour tous in Quebec.

Simone Jennings, RD, Public Health Dietitian, BC Interior Health

Simone is a public health dietitian located in British Columbia who works in population health. During the meeting, Simone went over British Columbia's provincial COVID-19 communicable disease guidelines for the K-12 school setting in BC.

Simone gave us an overview of what schools are still permitted to do during COVID-19 per public health guidelines—including accepting food donations, providing school meal programs, and food preparation as part of learning. Simone noted that although wearing masks is still mandatory, other rules have been updated: access to water fountains is no longer limited, for example, and learning groups or cohorts are not a requirement anymore. The latter has made it easier to provide large-scale meal services.

Simone shared a resource developed in 2020 by BC Public Health Dietitians to support teachers with food-based learning given provincial guidelines. "The intention behind this resource is, [because] the guidelines are such a large document, heavy to read through, we wanted to create something simple for teachers that would give them the confidence around what they could still do in a classroom related to food-based learning" (12:00). The document includes food-based education and activities and an FAQ section that focuses on answering COVID-19 guidelines and food-based learning questions.

Simone concluded her presentation by sharing BC's School Covid-19 Information website.

Erin Beagle, Executive Director, Roots to Harvest, Thunder Bay, Ontario

Erin Beagle is the Executive Director of Roots to Harvest (RTH), a non-profit organization that offers employment and experiential education opportunities in Thunder Bay, Ontario. As a community-based food program organization, Roots to Harvest works mainly with high schools and has been doing many different types of food access work during the pandemic.

Erin began her presentation by speaking of RTH's approach to coming back into schools as they reopen. She talked about their protocol, which requires that every staff member fill out an attestation concerning their vaccine status and upload their proof of vaccination if available. A master list is then generated, delimiting which staff members are allowed in schools.

She continued by stating that "in the classrooms, (they) were doing all the regular things (they) do with cooking" (17:00) with a focus on getting out of gardens. In addition, RTH can now travel back to more remote communities as they begin to reopen. Likewise, as schools are permitted to travel again, RTH can host groups of students in their backyard - sparking the creation of new outdoor events and workshops with schools. She mentioned, for example, that obtaining a fire permit to cook outside with students has worked very well and that this is undoubtedly an activity that will persist in the future.

Erin then spoke about RTH's school food nutrition program regulations. Although it is allowed for students to eat collectively, all schools are still "cohorting"* which implies that kids must be in the same learning groups to eat. "The upside to this is that they are finding that more kids are eating, but it's all grab and go stuff. None of it is fresh-prepared." (21:00) In high schools, cafeterias remain closed, so only pre-prepared foods are available as well. Erin added that this reality is very labour-intensive because the food has to be packed in different bins for all the separate classes rather than prepared collectively. As such, RTH wants to start piloting what eating fresh foods could look like with elementary schools, even in shifts. The idea is to push back against the institutionalization of "grab and go" type food programs.

Thibaud Liné, Executive Director, La Cantine pour tous, Québec

Thibaud Liné is the Executive Director of La Cantine pour tous (CPT), a network-based in Québec of 37 local food security organizations, or members, located in ten different regions of the province. The goal of the collective is to find solutions to better the food security of all Quebecers, specifically those who are more vulnerable such as children and seniors.

La Cantine pour tous members are non-profit organizations or cooperatives who already produce meals for their communities. La Cantine pour tous helps them reach their clientele through programs, business development and sharing resources such as equipment and digital tools.

CPT started operations about three years ago, transforming from a roundtable to a proper organization and launching their main program: La Cantine dans les écoles. When the network started, most members were already producing meals for students in primary schools via a targeted meal program funded by the government, which provided $1 meals to the most vulnerable kids in the most vulnerable schools on the island of Montreal. However, as the program evolved, member organizations rejected the restrictive food security lens with which the program was being carried out. Members decided they wished to stray away from a targeted program and instead encourage healthy eating habits in all students, regardless of their income.

Today, the program is in 26 schools in five regions in Québec, with plans to keep expanding as quickly as possible. "There is an increasing need in school ever since COVID started, and it feels like, at least in Québec (...) there is more openness to a universal lunch program." (33:35)

View this short video on the La Cantine dans les écoles program, broadcasted during the meeting.

Thibaud mentioned that, fortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic didn't heavily impact the La Cantine dans les écoles program because the kitchens are not located in the schools and that the meals were already being provided on disposable trays - as per School Board requirements. The only significant difference since COVID-19 was that the organization has had to rely much more on childcare employees.

After these three panellists finished their informative presentations, Coalition Coordinator Debbie Field shared that the #NourishKidsNow campaign's work is coming to fruition. Years of efforts and advocacy work through the campaign and beyond are reflected not only through each of the main parties' platform announcements but, more specifically, the Liberal party's very first financial commitment to school food of $1 billion over five years. Debbie added that having a section in the Liberal's platform dedicated solely to School Nutrition and Healthy Eating is also a significant victory.

Debbie concluded her presentation with an essential question to the participants and all members of the Coalition: How do we ensure that the Liberal's platform commitment is implemented?

Members of the Coalition then separated into breakout groups to discuss concrete steps that could help sustain #NourishKidsNow's momentum. Participants were also encouraged to reflect upon upcoming school food opportunities and challenges facing the school food movement this year. Input from each of the breakout groups was recorded and will help the Coalition plan future activities.

Ph.D. Candidate & Arrell Food Scholar Amberley Ruetz gave us an update on the Canada-wide school food academic working group, which is part of the Canadian Association for Food Studies and comprises those researching school food. This Canadian working group will be participating in the new Global School Food Research Consortium, which is a subcommittee of the global School Meals Coalition, of which the Coalition is a founding NGO partner.

*Cohorting: grouping students and staff within a school building who interact primarily only with each other.

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