Morning snack time is underway at St. Roch Catholic School in Toronto, where children line up in an orderly fashion, approaching a bin on the teacher’s desk. They grab small bags of Cheerios, juicy oranges, and tubes of flavored yogurt and sit at their desks to eat.
It’s an important ritual for young students: they say the small free meal helps them get through the day.
“If you don’t have a snack, sometimes you might get hungry or your stomach might hurt. That’s why it’s good to have a snack,” said Danna Rinten, a fifth-grade student.
Other students said a snack helped them stay on track with their schoolwork and activities or gave them nutrients if they had to leave the house without breakfast.
Behind the scenes, volunteers work hard to organize the mid-morning meal. It is just one of many community-run school feeding programs in Canada that operate in the absence of a national program, one that advocates say is badly needed.
“It’s heartbreaking when sometimes kids come in and say, ‘Miss Polo, I’m hungry.’ Like, ‘I don’t have a snack all day,'” said Janet Polo, a nutrition coordinator at St. Roch who oversees the meal program. .
St. Roch’s program has three sources of funding: donations from parents, contributions from the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s charity, The Angel Foundation, and a grant from children’s charity President’s Choice.
Annually, the Angel Foundation receives $4.3 million from Toronto Public Health, $2.1 million from the Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, and $2.7 million from fundraising and other donations. They fund about 12 million meals each year, their chief executive, John Yan, told Breaking:.
But organizers are finding it increasingly difficult to spend that money, especially on designing a nutritious menu that takes into account allergies and other dietary restrictions.
“I have to see [who] gives me the bagel cheaper than the other companies so I can order more,” Polo said, noting that not only have the prices gone up, but the quality of the food has also gone down.
Canada is the only G7 country that does not have a national school feeding program or national standards, according to the Canada Breakfast Club. That means that while each province has different needs, there is no aligned approach to feeding students across the full range of existing programs.
Researchers say that as high inflation hits food prices, more children need access to these programs, but community groups say they need stable funding from the federal government to keep everyone fed.
Building existing programs into the future
According to Statistics Canada, one in four Canadian children experiences what is called “food insecurity,” when a person cannot or is not sure they can access a quality diet or enough food. Meanwhile, 33 per cent of food bank users in Canada are children, according to Food Banks Canada.
A study by researchers from Canada, Chile, Australia, the United Kingdom and Mexico, published last year and based on data from 2019, examined school meal programs in countries around the world, including Canada, which he noted relies on community organizations and local programs to provide free and subsidized meals to children.
“Current findings suggest that these initiatives are ineffective substitutes for comprehensive national programs,” according to the study.
While many other countries established national school feeding programs after the Second World War, the Canadian government argued that families could turn to the family allowance program, which ended in the early 1990s and was replaced by the Tax Benefit for Children.
After launching the country’s first food policy in 2019, the Liberal government’s re-election platform for 2021 including a promise that he would invest $1 billion in a national school feeding program over five years. Still in the early stages, a public consultation on what a potential program would look like took place earlier this year.
Additional support for existing school feeding programs is the first step toward a national program, said Rachel Engler-Stringer, a professor in the department of community health and epidemiology at the faculty of medicine at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
“Provincial governments should make their own investments and then go to the federal government and say, ‘Look, we’re investing in school feeding programs, we want you to match [those funds],'” she said.
“That’s how we’ll build the program we can have in the future.”
The ideal school feeding program would likely have a breakfast or lunch entree prepared in a centralized industrial kitchen, which would then be distributed to multiple schools to save costs, Engler-Stringer said. Then, at the school level, smaller snacks and sides, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, would be prepared to accompany the main meal.
A school feeding program in a big city cannot be run in the same way as a rural or indigenously run program, taking into account different religious or cultural customs, he added.
“Communities should have control over what types of programs work for those communities.”
Several provinces are already investing in existing infrastructure, such as BC, which Announced $214 million over three years for school feeding programs. Meanwhile, Prince Edward Island’s school feeding program, Bon Appetit, offers all students from kindergarten to Grade 12 a daily lunch option for a small fee.
Engler-Stringer said an approach that emphasizes nutritious meals for all, rather than focusing on children from low-income families, would reduce the stigma associated with school meals and improve the diets of Canadian children.
The converging high costs of living, food, and housing have changed the financial reality for many families, meaning more children across the socioeconomic spectrum would benefit from these programs.
“There are already great examples in Canada, but they are small scale, they operate with staff who are basically passionate about what they do, and if someone can’t do it anymore, then those programs may or may not continue,” Engler-Stringer said.
Funding would help support volunteers
Rod Allan is the executive director of one of those smaller programs: Nourish Cowichan in Duncan, BC. The program serves breakfast, lunch and snacks to more than 1,300 children in the Cowichan Valley every day, a number that Allan says will increase to 1,600 in the next few weeks.
“If you knew how much pumpkin is in your chocolate chip cookies, you would be surprised,” Allan said.
The program is funded by corporate and community donations and grants, but that funding model is proving unsustainable as its area of influence expands.
‘A lot of effort’
“We will exceed the financing capacity and thus [we’re] really looking and really interested in [the] movement for a national food program,” he said. Additionally, with only a few paid employees, Nourish Cowichan relies heavily on a small, dedicated core group of volunteers.
“A lot of effort goes into finding volunteers, training them, etc. So if there was a little more reliable financial support, maybe it would be possible to provide a more robust infrastructure.”
“The story we like to tell is that we are a middle-class nation with big social networks and a social network,” Allan said. “I think that’s been true, but… that history has allowed us to ignore a lot of places where that network has failed over time.”
“It’s not science fiction or rocket science”
Debbie Field, coordinator of the Montreal-based Coalition for Healthy School Foods, said the seeds of a national program have already been planted.
“We have something, but we need the federal government to make it consistent and grow it because right now the affordability crisis is really important,” Field said.
“Every province and territory now funds school feeding programs. So we have a good system where money from the province or territory goes to the school districts and directly to the schools.”
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Field said the federal government can make a national school feeding program a reality by stabilizing community programs, funding them so they can sustain their operations and then growing them until there is a universal program.
“It’s not science fiction or rocket science.”
Jenna Sudds, federal minister of families, children and social development, said in a statement to Breaking: that the government plans to soon share a report detailing the results of its public consultation.
“The report recognizes that there was overwhelming support from participants for a national school feeding policy,” the statement said. More than 5,000 Canadians and 130 organizations participated in the consultation.