February 8, 2019 2:45 pm
Updated: March 9, 2019 4:57 pm

New campaign calls on Ottawa to step up to the plate with school food funding

WATCH: A new nova scotia campaign is adding its voice to the call for a national school meal program.

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A new Nova Scotia campaign is calling on the federal government to step up to the plate, and fork out cash for a national school food program.

Speak Up for School Food is supporting a cost-shared, universal food program that will ensure all Canadian students have access to at least one nutritious snack and meal at school every day.

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According to the campaign, Canada is the only G7 country that doesn’t have one, and as the federal health system spends billions treating heart disease, diabetes and other conditions tied to diet, it’s a gap the country can’t afford.

“We really are looking at this as an investment in the health of our children now, we’ll actually save money in the future,” said Dalhousie University health promotion professor Sara Kirk.

“And the return on investment for school food programs is really impressive. It’s between $3 and $10 for every dollar invested.”

READ MORE: N.S. boosts funding to expand breakfast program to every school in the province

As it stands, about 25 per cent of Nova Scotia’s 118,000 students accesses breakfast programs daily, but only a few schools are able to offer lunch as well. Last year, the province doubled its annual funding for its own health school eating program, and in an emailed statement, Health Minister Randy Delorey said he would welcome federal help in expanding it.

“We understand the importance of free, nourishing school breakfast programs to children and to their performance in the classroom and in daily life,” he told Global News on Friday.

“We currently have universal accessible free breakfast programs in 94 per cent of public schools in the province…We would always welcome support from other partners to expand and enhance the program.”

Margo Riebe-Butt of Nourish Nova Scotia said it’s particularly important that a school food program be universal, as opposed to offered in areas that are perceived as low-income, or communities where children are thought to be hungry. Apart from the continued stigmatization of certain neighbourhoods, she explained, there are many reasons that kids come to school hungry that aren’t tied to poverty.

Examples include households where both parents are working and out the door before getting a chance to feed their kids breakfast, and kids don’t yet have the skills to make themselves a nutritious meal. Other times, she added, kids are simply going to early morning practices and not eating before they leave, or have such a long commute to school that even if they did eat, they’re hungry again by the time they arrive.

Hunger is an issue for a third of elementary school students, she said in an interview, and two thirds of middle and high school students.

“What we’re trying to say is the federal government is the only piece of the pie that they’re not stepping up to the table and looking after the health and well-being of children and youth in that capacity,” said Riebe-Butt.

“You know good and health are really important for future outcomes, for economic reasons and all sorts of other reasons.”

READ MORE: Hungry kids lose lose almost five years of class time by graduation: teacher survey

The Speak Up for School Food campaign already has more than 2,500 signatures on its online petition to the House of Commons. It’s part of a national movement called Nourish Kids Now.

Despite these advocacy efforts, the federal government says it’s not considering a national school food program. It’s focus is on its Healthy Eating Strategy, said spokesperson Geoffroy Thivierge-Legault in an emailed statement.

“Improving the food environment will ultimately improve access to nutritious foods for all Canadians including children and youth,” he said. “The Public Health Agency of Canada also has initiatives aimed at improving access to nutritious foods for Canadian children and youth, such as the Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program and the Community Action Program for Children.”

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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