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Canada is the only G7 country without a national school feeding program. Advocates say the time has come

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Breakfast time is underway at St. Roch Catholic School in Toronto, where children line up in an orderly manner near a trash can placed on the teacher’s desk. They grab little bags of Cheerios, juicy oranges and tubes of flavored yogurt and sit back at their desks to eat.

It’s an important ritual for young students – they say the small, free meal helps them get through their day.

“If you don’t get breakfast, sometimes you might get hungry or your stomach might hurt. So it’s good that you get breakfast,” said Grade 5 student Danna Rinten.

Other students said breakfast helps them keep up with their school work and activities or gives them nutrients if they have to leave home without breakfast.

Behind the scenes, volunteers are hard at work organizing the mid-morning meal. It is one of several community-run school feeding programs in Canada that operate in the absence of a national program – which advocates say is desperately needed.

Students at St. Roch Catholic School in Toronto eat Cheerios, oranges and yogurt during morning breakfast. (CBC)

“It’s heartbreaking sometimes when kids come in and say ‘Miss Polo, I’m hungry.’ Like, ‘I don’t have breakfast all day,'” said Janet Polo, St. Roch’s nutrition coordinator who oversees the meal program.

St. Roch’s program has three streams of funding: donations from parents, a contribution from the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s charity The Angel Foundation and a grant from the President’s Choice Children’s Charity.

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. Their executive director John Yan told CBC News they finance about 12 million meals each year.

But organizers are finding it difficult to spend that money, especially in preparing a nutritious menu that takes into account allergies and other dietary restrictions.

“I have to see (who) gives me cheaper bagels than other companies so I can order more,” Polo said. Given that not only have the prices increased, but the quality of food has also decreased.

Canada is the only country in the G7 that does not have a national school feeding program or national standard, according to canadian breakfast club, This means that although each province has different needs, there is no aligned approach to feeding students across the range of existing programs.

Researchers say that as high inflation affects food prices, more children need access to these programs — but community groups say they need steady funding from the federal government to feed everyone. .

building existing programs into the future

A man's hands are shown picking from a pile of oranges.
A volunteer sorts bags of oranges in preparation for breakfast at St. Roch Catholic School in Toronto. Once filled, the tubs are distributed among the classrooms. (CBC)

According to Statistics Canada, one in four Canadian children experiences “food insecurity” – when a person cannot access a quality diet or enough food, or is not sure they can. Meanwhile, 33 per cent of food bank users in Canada are children, according to Food Banks Canada.

A study published last year by researchers in Canada, Chile, Australia, the UK and Mexico and based on 2019 data, examined School meal programs in countries around the world – including Canada, rely on community organizations and local programs to provide free and subsidized meals to children.

“The current findings suggest that these initiatives are ineffective substitutes for comprehensive national programs,” the study said.

While many other countries established national school food programs after the Second World War, the Canadian government argued that families could instead rely on the Family Allowance program, which ended in the early 1990s and was replaced by the Child Tax Benefit. Was replaced.

The Liberal government’s 2021 re-election platform, after launching the country’s first food policy in 2019 Involved A promise to invest $1 billion in the national school feeding program over five years. Still in the early stages, a public consultation was held earlier this year to see what a potential program would look like.

A woman sits in her office with a computer and a bookcase behind her.
University of Saskatchewan Professor Rachel Engler-Stringler says additional support for existing school meal programs is needed before creating a national program. (CBC)

The additional support for existing school meal programs is a first step toward a national program, said Rachel Engler-Stringer, a professor in the department of community health and epidemiology in the College 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],'” he said.

“That’s how we’ll build the programs we can build in the future.”

Engler-Stringer said the ideal school meal program would have the main dish for breakfast or lunch prepared in a centralized industrial kitchen, which would then be distributed to multiple schools to save costs. Then, at the school level, small snacks and side dishes such as fresh fruits and vegetables will be prepared along with the main meal.

He said a school feeding program in a big city cannot be run like a rural or indigenous-run program, taking into account different religious or cultural customs.

“Communities need to have control over what types of programs work for those communities.”

Many provinces are already investing in existing infrastructure, such as B.C., which announced $214 million over three years for school feeding programs. Meanwhile, Prince Edward Island’s school meal program, Bon Appétit, offers a daily lunch option to all students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 for a small fee.

Look BC has expanded its school lunch program but the rest of the country is lagging behind:

BC expands school meal program, but Canada lags behind

British Columbia is spending $214 million over the next three years to build and expand school feeding programs, but experts say Canada lags behind other G7 countries in feeding children at school.

Engler-Stringer said an approach that emphasizes nutritious food for all, rather than targeting children from low-income families, would reduce the stigma associated with school meals and improve the diets of Canadian children.

The increasingly high costs of living, groceries, and housing have changed the financial reality of many families, meaning more children across the socio-economic spectrum will benefit from these programs.

“There are excellent examples already in Canada, but they’re on a smaller scale, they’re staffed with employees who are fundamentally passionate about what they do and if someone can no longer do it, Those programs may or may not continue,” Engler-Stringer said.

Funding will help retain volunteers

Depicts a man wearing a gray button-up in an industrial kitchen.
Rod Allen, executive director of Nourish Cowichan in Duncan, BC, says the program relies heavily on a small, dedicated core group of volunteers. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Rod Allen is the executive director of one of those smaller programs – Nourish Cowichan in Duncan, B.C. The program provides breakfast, lunch and snacks to more than 1,300 children in the Cowichan Valley every day, Allen says that figure is expected to grow by next year. Will increase to 1,600. A few weeks.

“If they knew how much squash was in their chocolate chip cookies, they would be shocked,” Allen said.

The program is funded by corporate and community donations and grants, but that funding model is proving unsustainable due to the expansion of their catchment area.

‘a lot of effort’

“We will increase the funding capacity and so (we are) really interested in the movement of a national food program,” he said. Also, with only a few paid employees, Nourish Cowichan relies heavily on a small, dedicated core group of volunteers.

“It takes a lot of effort to find volunteers, train them, etc. So if there was a little more reliable financial support, it might be possible to provide stronger infrastructure.”

“The story we want to tell is that we are a middle-class country with great social networks and social networks,” Allen said. “I think that’s true, but … that story has allowed us to ignore a lot of the parts where the Net is failing over time.”

Large plastic tubs of soup are shown in an industrial kitchen.
School meals supplied by Nourish Cowichan are prepared in an industrial kitchen at École Mont Prévost. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

‘This is not science fiction or rocket science’

Debbie Field, coordinator of the Montreal-based Coalition for Healthy School Food, said the seeds for a national program have already been sown.

“We have some, but we need the federal government to harmonize it and scale it up because the affordability crisis is really significant right now,” Fields said.

“Every province and territory now funds school meal programs. So we have a good system where money from the province or territory goes directly to school districts and directly to schools.”

listen What does the National School Meals Program look like if grocery prices rise?:

the current19:55Rethinking national school lunch program amid rising food prices

The high cost of food has led to renewed pressure for a national school lunch program in Canada. Matt Galloway talks with Selina Stoyles, Executive Director of the Kids Eat Smart Foundation in Newfoundland and Labrador; and Debbie Field, coordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Food Canada.

Field said the federal government could create a national school feeding program by stabilizing community programs, funding them so they can sustain their operations, and then scaling them up until there is a universal program.

“This is not science fiction or rocket science.”

Jenna Soods, federal minister of families, children and social development, said in a statement to CBC News that the government plans to share a report soon detailing the results of its public consultation.

“The report recognizes that there was overwhelming support from participants for the national school food policy,” the statement said. More than 5,000 Canadians and 130 organizations participated in the consultation.


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