COVID-19 Is the Perfect Opportunity to Introduce a National School Meal Program
Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Opinion by Claire Borgaonkar
One of the most significant secondary public health crises to emerge in Canada as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is food insecurity. Since lockdown and quarantine measures were introduced in mid-March of 2020, food insecurity in Canada has soared. A May 2020 survey from Statistics Canada revealed that approximately 14.6 per cent of Canadian households had experienced food insecurity since March , a stark jump from the 8.8 per cent reported in 2017/2018 . What’s more, households with children were far more likely to report instances of food insecurity than households without , suggesting the issue is disproportionately affecting Canadian children and their families.
"Canada is one of the only OECD countries without a federally coordinated school meal program "
This evidence makes a strong case for the implementation of child-specific food interventions to alleviate rising food insecurity among this demographic. In many schools across Canada, these interventions already exist in the form of school-provided meals. Many schools across the country offer free or subsidized school breakfast and lunch programs to students during the school day. Indeed, before the pandemic, approximately two million students participated in these programs every day .
However, these programs are not universally available across the country. Canada is one of the only OECD countries without a federally coordinated school meal program , relying instead on a patchwork system of regional and non-profit organizations to provide meals to students . Such a system leaves out thousands of children in unserved regions, potentially making access to nutritious foods more difficult. In a crisis situation like COVID-19, this exclusion can have dire consequences for both the students and their families.
The federal government should therefore work towards building a nationally run school meal program to ensure meals are available to students in every school in the country – not just those covered by regional programs. The long-term nutritional benefits should have been reason enough to enact such a program well before the start of the pandemic. Evidence shows that children who participate in school meal programs are more likely to consume fruits, vegetables, and milk at breakfast and lunch, and less likely to be overweight or obese . This results in positive long-term health outcomes among participants, and a national program would ensure that these benefits could be enjoyed by all students.
But in the wake of COVID-19, a national school food program could play an even greater role in addressing pandemic-related social issues. Evidence from other high-income countries suggests that school meal programs can play a significant role in decreasing rates of food insecurity among participating students and their families. A 2012 study conducted in low socioeconomic status school districts in Greece suggested that school food interventions decreased food insecurity by 6.5 per cent over the course of one school year . Similarly, studies examining the United States’ nationally managed School Breakfast Program noted a decrease in levels of food insecurity after the program’s implementation . Given these findings, and amid the current backdrop of food insecurity in Canada, the federal government has immediate reason to enact a centralized meal program.
While the federal government committed to developing a national school meal program in its 2019 budget, concrete action towards making this vision a reality is yet to be made . This must change as the government develops a national recovery strategy to address the social woes of COVID-19. Not only does a nationally run program have the potential to significantly alleviate food insecurity among Canadian children, but it also has the added benefit of making good nutrition and healthy eating habits accessible in all regions of the country. The benefits of school meal programs are evident from both a security perspective and a public health one. It is about time that these benefits are accessible to every child in Canada.
“Food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, May 2020”, Statistics Canada, 24 June 2020, p. 3, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00039-eng.pdf
“Household food insecurity, 2017/2018”, Statistics Canada, 24 June 2020, p. 3, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/82-625-x/2020001/article/00001-eng.pdf?st=C5_E92L.
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