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Youth Engagement: Critical to a successful national school food program

By Stacie Smith, Co-Executive Director, Young Canadians Roundtable on Health

The Young Canadians Roundtable on Health (YCRH) and the Coalition for Healthy School Food collaborated on a series of youth focus groups to have young people have a voice in the creation of a national school food program. Thanks to the generous support of Food Secure Canada, we were able to host these virtual sessions across the country.

At this time of major societal change brought on by the pandemic, the YCRH saw a vital opportunity for youth to help shape Canada’s food policy and contribute to a more equal Canada. Youth engagement within school food and food insecurity spaces are critical to a successful national school food program, one that is designed with input from the individuals who will be making the most of it. Youth being given a voice in the conversation of creating a national school food program was a new initiative being undertaken.

This project, conducted during the summer of 2021, allowed us to hold virtual conversations with youth in British Columbia, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick about their experiences with school food, and how a national school food program would impact their lives. We targeted youth aged 12-18 years currently in secondary school in Canada, which aligned with the goals and objectives of both the YCRH and the Coalition for Healthy School Food.

Through this project, we had the opportunity to amplify the voices of youth: both through their experiences and their ideas for how Canada can deliver the best school food programs. We also looked to learn youths’ vision for a national school food program, as well as hear their perspectives on how the ongoing pandemic has restricted access to school food programs and how this has impacted the health and wellbeing of students.

Impacts of school closures during COVID-19

August 2021 - BC youth focus group hosted by YCRH & the Coalition

British Columbia youth were very engaged during our conversation; many of them expressed the lack of accommodations for those with allergies and those with limited financial resources to afford school food. The pandemic amplified many of these challenges, such as the closure of cafeterias. This removed one of the main sources for food at school and left many students feeling distressed with losing access to consistent meals.

While Nova Scotia youth seemed to have options for those with allergies, many meals that could be purchased were still out of reach for many, with the cost being increased for accommodating their needs. Cafeterias were also closed for youth in the province, with pre-packaged food being the alternative to cooked food, which resulted in smaller portion sizes and less healthy options.

In New Brunswick, our one participant lived in a rural community, which has been impacted more heavily with the lack of school food options. Some grades of students were prioritized over others, with younger students getting access to snacks and meals before older students. The school only had a limited amount of free offerings, which left the older grades with little to no options for school food. Some of their programming only targeted those with food insecurity, which can’t be easily determined. Not only were cafeterias closed in the province, but they lost access to their communal food garden and cooking space due to the lockdowns, which exacerbated food insecurity in these rural communities.

Sustainable Development Goals

Through an initial review of the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) by Food Secure Canada, they found that 9 of the SDGs seemed most directly relevant to the design of a school food program for Canada, and that the other 8 have indirect links. The 9 SDGs that directly align are:

  • GOAL 1: No Poverty

  • GOAL 2: Zero Hunger

  • GOAL 3: Good Health and Well-being

  • GOAL 4: Quality Education

  • GOAL 5: Gender Equality

  • GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

  • GOAL 10: Reduced Inequality

  • GOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

  • GOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions

All provinces included in this project do not currently meet the above SDGs and have a long road ahead to achieving them. The lack of stability in the food services offered at schools paired with the failure to teach students about the linkages between farming and food production are contributing factors that create barriers for Canada in reaching these SDGs.

When it comes to the future of school food in Canada, many of the youth gave recommendations that were the same, no matter what province they were located in. These include:

  • Ensuring all schools have the necessary funding to provide an adequate amount of healthy meals that serve all students in their community, regardless of their dietary needs.

  • The inclusion of diverse food options for everyone, as it will ensure equitable access to those with specific dietary restrictions.

  • The integration of educational components into school food programs.

  • The integration of local food and local Indigenous food practices.

Youth need to continue to be engaged during the consultation process of the creation of both a National School Food Policy and a national school food program. This has not happened during the initial conversations thus far. Young people should be consulted on a program that they will be utilizing, or adults will end up ‘presuming’ what they want and fail to achieve success in the long run. Making room for youth voices and actions when advocating for youth health issues is key to providing proper solutions that will aid this population .

You can read the report in full here.

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