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Transitioning from the Immediate COVID-19 Response to a National School Food Program

By Carolyn Webb and Debbie Field

COVID-19 has made us more aware of our food system: how food makes its way through distribution chains; who has access to food and who doesn’t (and how quickly that can change); and what can happen if the links in the chain give out - e.g. if people lose their jobs; if migrant farm workers can’t support our growing season; if schools suddenly close.

Image from VOCM's Article: School Lunch Association Donates Food Supply to Community Organizations (Newfoundland and Labrador), Published April 20, 2020

We’ve seen governments and community organizations (including many Coalition members) quickly pivot to distribute food to children and youth who were no longer accessing school food programs (see our Blog Post Mobilizing Communities to Increase Access to Healthy Food while Schools are Closed as well as a summary of media articles about the incredible work of organizations who are helping to feed the children who normally rely on a school food program - see the map, right).

And now that we’ve caught our breath and can start thinking about the future again we’ve been asking ourselves: How do we build on our current immediate response and transition to a National School Food Program?

What we’ve learned during COVID-19:

Over the past several weeks we’ve learned a lot about the resilience, the adaptability, and the innovation of our 125 member organizations, the majority of whom are involved in the daily delivery of breakfast, lunch and snacks school food programs.

We’ve learned how much can be built off of a strong foundation. Our members’ programs have given them the great capacity to support emergency food distribution and leverage existing community partnerships and distribution channels. Our members have also been working to apply their strong values including serving healthy food, rich in vegetables and fruit, that is, in many cases, as locally sourced as possible; and applying the notion of universal support (i.e. assisting every family that asks for support, without the need for screening).

  • E.g. REACH (Regina Education and Action on Child Hunger Inc) is an organization that was established to support breakfast and lunch programs. Since COVID-19 started their Food Security team (made up of the food bank, Salvation Army, and municipal government ) has met every morning to solve the problems of the day and address gaps in the system. One of the first things they tackled was filling the gap in the school lunch program and adapting their summer lunch program model to the current situation. They are now delivering 1050 lunch meals every day. The City of Regina provides the staff to open up a different Recreation Centre in the city each day to distribute food to families, and also provides delivery drivers. Families can also ask for home delivery. REACH and the team found an industrial kitchen and is contracting with the facility’s staff to prepare lunches. The lunches are packaged for one week (7 sandwiches per Meal package), with a range of healthy fruit and vegetable options. The Salvation Army is delivering daily to 4 different sites. Together, the team is now delivering up to 6500 meals per week.

We’ve learned how innovative school food providers are. We’ve been struck by the impressive innovation that community organizations have shown to get healthy food to children and youth and their families. We’ve seen partnerships develop to purchase from local farmers whose distribution chains have been disrupted; to engage recently unemployed chefs in preparing healthy food; and to support the complicated question of how to get the food into the hands of those who need it.

  • E.g. The PEI Home and School Federation is supporting food distribution to children and youth during the COVID-19 health emergency by partnering with the PEI government, PEI Public Schools Branch (PSB) and Breakfast Club of Canada. Building on the school food pilot led by PSB, which began in January 2020 and had to cease operations when COVID-19 impacted the Island, food service is continuing. Knowing that children and families were in need of on-going food supports, the government moved forward quickly making arrangements for a continued effort to provide delicious healthy food to students through the Department of Housing and Social Development and PSB school food program. Students who were known to be vulnerable by the schools are receiving meals as well as those who have self-identified through a Support Families phone line that opened up for the health emergency. Student numbers have grown from 1358 meals during week 1 to over 5000 meals in week 5. A Hub model has grown from 4 to 6 kitchens, 2 schools and 4 restaurants, with Chefs purchasing local ingredients as much as is possible and preparing meals. Government employees have been redeployed to support food delivery to families. This initiative is open to any student in P.E.I.; no one is turned away. This is a truly collaborative initiative to help in a challenging time.

  • The Greater Victoria School District SD61 was providing 1000 meals / day to students prior to COVID-19. Now they have begun to offer food to families at community hubs. They are partnering with their original school food meal provider as well as a restaurant to provide a week’s worth of pre-made meals to 1000 families. Each week families come and pick up meals at their hub using social distancing measures. The School District is working towards purchasing from local farms and school farms, as well as making the BC fruit & veggie program food available at their hubs.

We’ve learned the benefits of adaptive school food program providers who are embedded in their communities. We have been so impressed at how our members have been able to recognize the needs and fill the gaps in extremely creative ways and with very little time, designing each response around the unique community’s needs.

  • E.g. Share the Warmth has a variety of food programs for children and youth. They used to provide food for 20 schools and are now delivering boxes made up of 6 days worth of pre-made meals to their members. They are seeing an increase in demand from new families and families with more kids. They are trying to ensure that food is as healthy as possible by providing fruits and vegetables.

  • The Council of Yukon First Nations is enabling a territorial food security program that is supporting breakfast and lunch programs in schools, daycares and youth centres in 14 First Nations thanks to Jordan’s Principle funding. When schools were open the funding, which is controlled by each Nation, was used to hire cooks, upgrade kitchen facilities, ensure that traditional food was included in the menu, support hunters, buy freezer space, and enable a wide range of other Nation-led initiatives. Since COVID-19 each Nation has been adapting their program to meet their community’s needs and context.

Transitioning to a National School Food Program:

When this emergency situation passes, our members want to see even more momentum building towards a national, universal school food program.

  • There is now even more public consciousness about the need for everyone in Canada to have access to healthy food.

  • Our members will emerge stronger from this crisis with stronger community partnerships, creative distribution systems, and purchasing arrangements that we can continue to build off of.

  • Our members will continue to innovate and adapt school food programs to the communities they’re embedded in.

A Quality National School Food Program – needed now more than ever:

With so much uncertainty, job instability, and questions about the future we know that children and youth in Canada will benefit now more than ever from a national school food program. Schools cannot fulfill their educational mandate if students have inadequate access to healthy food during their school day and we know that school food programs can provide access to food for many of those who are currently vulnerable to food insecurity.

** Although it has been impressive to see so much creativity by programs for children, youth and their families while schools are closed, all of the programs during COVID-19 have been, by definition, targeted to vulnerable families. As school practitioners and researchers, members of the Coalition have spent decades identifying the problems with programs that are targeted and carry stigma, including that students who are often the most in need of food report boycotting programs because of this stigma. We know that all children are struggling to access healthy food during their school day regardless of their parents’ income (see the Research). In order to ensure the health of all of our children and youth, a successful National School Food Program in Canada needs to be universal, in other words available to all children and youth, rather than targeted. (See FAQ question #5 for more info)

We’re also excited with how school food programs could be used to stimulate and support local economies, including providing a stable market for farmers and a source of employment for chefs and other food service workers. When local food procurement targets are set and local food is served in school food programs, the local multiplier of the increased local food purchases will impact regional food production, household and business earnings, long-term gross domestic product, and part-time jobs created or sustained. A preliminary University of Guelph study ​suggests that a national program could contribute $4.8 billion to the Canadian agri-food sector over a 10 year period if 30% was spent on domestic food purchases, as well as stimulate the development of as many as 207,700 new jobs.

We are in awe of this movement. Imagine what we could do with sustained federal funding to support all children and youth to access healthy food at school? Now is the time to explore how we can transition from the current immediate response to a federal investment in a national school food program.

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