The federal government is planning to roll out Canada’s first-ever national school food policy in an effort to increase access to nutritious meals for children on campuses across the country.
The initiative is part of the 2022 federal budget, but it’s not clear yet when that plan will be unveiled, what it will include, or how much money will go into it.
Last week, the United States Department of Agriculture unveiled updated school nutrition standards, with a focus on limiting added sugars and salt. But in Canada, that work is still underway.
In November 2022, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) launched month-long public consultations to get input from Canadians on what they would like to see in the national school food policy.
And over the past six months, Ottawa has held conversations and roundtables with diverse stakeholders from across Canada, according to ESDC.
“While school meal programs exist in some form in all provinces and territories and in many Indigenous communities, we know that existing programming only serves roughly 21 per cent of all school-aged children,” said Mila Roy, a spokesperson for ESDC.
So the aim is to build on the existing framework in collaboration with provinces, territories and key partners so that the national school food policy reflects regional and local needs, she said.
School food programming falls under provincial and territorial jurisdiction, except for First Nations children on reserve.
The Coalition for Healthy School Food has been advocating for years for Canada to have a national school food program which is universal, cost-shared and flexible.
Members of the coalition have been consulted by the federal government on the pan-Canadian school food policy.
“It’s a really big breakthrough at a social policy level and also a really big breakthrough for children and their families all across the country,” said Debbie Field, coordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Food.
What could the plan include?
Canada already has a food guide which recommends half a plate of fruits and vegetables, a quarter plate of proteins and a quarter of whole grain foods with a glass of water.
Field said this guide provides a good basis for the school program, but a national policy can’t follow a “cookie cutter” approach with a rigid menu to be served everywhere in the country.
She said the plan should accommodate local needs, concerns, and capacity. For instance, in a school with a high Muslim population, halal food should be served.
“So we think there has to be some flexibility, but as a concept in general, we do think that the money should come with conditions about the kind of food served.”
Dina Kulik, a pediatrician in Toronto, said the plan should include a healthy breakfast so children can fill up with a nutritious meal before the school day starts.
“Ideally we’re looking at not providing a lot of extra added sugars, so an actual fruit versus fruit juice or pop,” she said.
In the U.S., a multi-year plan released on Feb. 3 would require the first limits on added sugars in the 2025-26 school year, starting with high-sugar foods such as sweetened cereals, yogurts, flavoured milk and grain-based desserts.
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By the fall of 2027, added sugars in school meals would be limited to less than 10 per cent of the total calories per week for breakfasts and lunches.
The proposal would also reduce sodium in school meals by 30 per cent by the fall of 2029.
“We want to make sure that kids are getting enough sodium in their diets, but recognizing that most kids probably have too much sodium in their diet,” Kulik said.
To ensure kids get a wide range of nutrients and vitamins, they should be given more whole natural foods without added ingredients like grains, dairy, fruits and vegetables,” she added.
The Breakfast Club of Canada (BCC) supports over 3,500 school nutrition programs across the country, feeding more than 580,000 children daily.
The BCC encourages schools to use locally sourced fruits and vegetables, where possible, and opt for what is in season.
“Frozen vegetables and fruits are also great choices and can be used in many ways,” the BCC’s nutrition guidelines state.
The non-profit organization also recommends giving plant-based protein foods, such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and tofu for more sustainability and variety.
Calls for investment
In the 2021 election platform, the Liberal party pledged it would spend $1 billion over five years to develop the national school food policy.
Field said she would like to see that commitment included in the 2023 federal budget as local programs are shrinking and increasingly underfunded amid high inflation. Local school food programming is at a “breaking point,” she added.
“What we’re hearing right now is a lot of programs are saying they have got money till April, but they don’t have any money past April.”
Over the past few months, the Breakfast Club of Canada has also been offering consultations to the government on the development of the school food policy.
While welcoming the plan, Judith Barry, co-founder and government relations director for the BCC, said that Canada is lagging behind other G7 and OECD countries by not already having a national school food program in place.
“It’s about time that we’re moving into that direction,” she told Global News.
Barry also said that inflation and the rising cost of food have really impacted school food programming, which is why Ottawa needs to make a financial commitment toward the national policy and invest right away.
“There are huge gaps in needs as we speak … and we need the government to take responsibility and act on that important need,” she said.
— with files from The Associated Press