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School Food Programs in Canada and the Sustainable Development Goals

Updated: Sep 21, 2023

As our federal government gets ready to develop a School Food Policy and program for Canada, and join the other G7 Countries and most of the world in investing in school food, our Coalition has found it valuable to review the Sustainable Development Goals to inform what recommendations we offer about the best design for a school food program.

This post shares some reflections as well as a short overview of how the SDGs and school food programs can advance one another. You can also access a fuller discussion paper, authored by Susan Alexander of Food Secure Canada: School Food and the Sustainable Development Goals: A pathway to meeting multiple goals and targets.

The UN SDGs and a School Food Program for Canada: Setting the Context

In 2015, Canada signed on to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs bind the Government of Canada to implement a range of different goals including those related to food, nutrition, and agriculture by 2030. They provide a roadmap to advance the health of people and the planet.

In 2019, the Government of Canada announced that it will work towards a National School Food Program. This was later made an action area of the Food Policy for Canada. The Government intends to measure the success of the Food Policy using targets aligned with the SDGs. The Liberal 2021 election platform then promised to “work with our provincial, territorial, municipal, Indigenous partners, and stakeholders to develop a National School Food Policy and work towards a national school nutritious meal program with a $1 billion dollar investment over five years”. In December 2021 this commitment was embedded in the mandate letters of the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and Minister of Families, Children and Social Development.

This coincided with another important global initiative, also connected to the Sustainable Development Goals’ 2030 target. The School Meals Coalition, launched in April 2021, “will support governments and their partners to improve or restore national, sustainable school meal programmes, and strive for every child to have the opportunity to receive a healthy, nutritious meal in school by 2030.”

As we look to explore the links between the SDGs and the development of a School Food Program for Canada, a number of questions come to mind:

  • How could a School Food Program for Canada with federal standards and investments help the Government of Canada advance its SDG commitments?

  • How could Canada design school food programs so that they best advance the SDGs?

  • How can a review of the SDGs help us design the best possible school food programs?

  • And what can we in Canada learn from the global School Meals Coalition, as well as from governments around the world who have federally harmonized school food programs, about the best design for a School Food Program for Canada?

We know that the ways that SDG Goals and targets can be met by school food programs will depend on how the programs are designed. We believe that a well-designed, comprehensive program for Canada will have the most potential to achieve multiple Goals and targets.

Over the next three years, the Coalition will work with its members, Food Secure Canada and other partners and stakeholders such as youth, teachers, and parents, to explore the above questions and to identify, develop and share civil society and Indigenous food system best practices and policy analysis to address gaps in knowledge and data to advance the SDGs.

As we start down this process, we first want to thank Susan Alexander and FSC for the discussion paper School Food and the Sustainable Development Goals: A pathway to meeting multiple goals and targets.

The following section shares some excerpts from the aforementioned discussion paper.

9 SDG Goals are directly relevant to the design of a School Food Program for Canada:

Through an initial review of the 17 SDG Goals, FSC’s paper found that 9 of the SDG Goals seemed most directly relevant to the design of a School Food Program for Canada, and that the other 8 have indirect links.

Each SDG Goal is broken down into smaller associated targets. The table below outlines how school food programs impact 14 specific SDG targets within the 9 Goals most directly relevant to school food programs.

GOAL 1 - End poverty in all its forms everywhere

Target 1.2 By 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions

A universal school food program would provide equitable and dignified access to healthy food for children and provide some support to low income families. It would not be a replacement for needed income supports for the unacceptable number of Canadians living in poverty. School food programs can reduce the pressure on the family budget by covering the cost of meals at school and are recognized globally to be a component of a strong social safety net including subsidized housing and childcare.

Target 1.3 Implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable

When they are universal, school food programs are part of a social protection system that reaches all children in all communities, except those not in school by exclusion or choice.

GOAL 2 - End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

Target 2.1 By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round

Universal healthy school food programs reach students across household income levels, ensuring equitable access to nutritious food for all students.

Target 2.3 By 2030, double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment

School food programs can create predictable, structured markets for small farmers, reduce their investment risks and provide them with a regular source of income.

Target 2.4 By 2030, ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality

School food programs have enormous potential to advance sustainable regional food systems, through procurement standards.

GOAL 3 - Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

Target 3.4 By 2030, reduce by one third premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and well-being

School meal programs offer a unique setting to influence the diet choices and health behaviours of children and mitigate risk for chronic disease later in life.

GOAL 4 - Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

Target 4.1 By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes

School food programs benefit student learning and academic success. Leaders of the School Meals Coalition have said that now that all countries in the world have a Public Education System, all countries need a Public School Food system.

Target 4.7 By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development

School food programs that include food and nutrition literacy education can help to educate students about sustainability and engage them in more sustainable actions.

GOAL 5 - Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Target 5.4 Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate

School food programs support parents, especially working women, in the preparation of at least one meal per day for their children. These programs, along with universal child care programs, can be part of a comprehensive approach to equity and support for women. School food programs with a food literacy component can model gender-neutral and gender-stereotype free nutrition and food skills education to promote food and domestic responsibility and equity in children.

GOAL 8 - Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

Target 8.1 Sustain per capita economic growth in accordance with national circumstances and, in particular, at least 7 per cent gross domestic product growth per annum in the least developed countries

School food programs can create sustainable, climate-friendly jobs at the school, for local food providers and for local processors.

GOAL 10 - Reduce inequality within and among countries

Target 10.2 By 2030, empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status

Meals and curriculum that focus on cultural diversity provide opportunities for students to learn about diverse cultures and to engage in their own cultural practices.

GOAL 12 - Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

Target 12.3 By 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses

Sourcing food locally and engaging students in growing, gathering and cooking can reduce both plate waste (when students like the food and want to eat it more) and production waste.

Target 12.7 Promote public procurement practices that are sustainable, in accordance with national policies and priorities

School food programs can support local food production strategies by procurement standards and cultivating strong relationships between schools, community partners, and local food producers.

GOAL 16 - Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

Target 16.7 Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels

When students, parents, school staff, and local stakeholders such as farmers and local municipalities are involved in the design and evaluation of school food programs they bring communities together to create more inclusive societies.

School food programs contribute to meeting the other 8 goals, though more indirectly

Goal 6 (Clean water and sanitation): Food literacy programs can educate children to understand why water access and management is vital.

Goal 7 (Affordable and clean energy): School food programs that commit to sourcing all or some of their produce from sustainable food providers help to create demand that supports farm transformation.

Goal 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure): Schools can build or retrofit school kitchens and gardens to be sustainable and fully accessible, as well as provide a reliable market for small and local food processors.

Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities): Urban school garden projects contribute to targets around green space, and building inclusive and sustainable urbanization.

Goal 13 (Climate Action): School food programs can model menus that are healthy for children and the planet, teach about the impact of our food choices on greenhouse gas emissions, teach about and reduce food waste, provide a market for sustainable, climate-friendly agricultural produce, and teach about how to grow food sustainably.

Goal 14 (Life below water): School food programs can support sustainable fisheries through their food purchasing decisions, as well as food literacy.

Goal 15 (Life on land): School food programs can support land use and biodiversity protection targets through menu choices, school garden projects and food literacy.

Goal 17 (Partnerships for the goals): Canada highlighted its longstanding support to the World Food Program’s school meals feeding programs in its 2018 Voluntary National Review of progress towards meeting the 2030 Agenda.

Read more in Food Secure Canada’s 2021 Discussion Paper School Food and the Sustainable Development Goals: A pathway to meeting multiple goals and targets

In the future, we look forward to exploring how all of these SDGs link to and can be advanced by school food programs!

Blog written by Carolyn Webb and Debbie Field, Coalition for Healthy School Food

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