The Current19:55Reconsidering a national school lunch program amid soaring food costs
As food prices soar across Canada, it’s getting harder for children to eat a healthy meal at school.
“It used to be that we knew the vulnerable neighbourhoods and the schools within them, but that’s not the case anymore. It could be any child, any youth, anywhere,” Celina Stoyles, executive director of the Kids Eat Smart Foundation in Newfoundland and Labrador told The Current host Matt Galloway.
“We’re hearing a lot about hidden hunger and the fact that [for] many families, food is the last thing on their monthly budget list. There’s just not enough money to go around.”
Stoyles is one of many food advocates who have stepped in to provide schools with free lunches that are both nutritious and tasty. But the cost of food and the increased number of children depending on her program have increased over the last year by 100 per cent.
These programs rely on community support and fundraising and they operate on a voluntary basis. Yet the need has been so great — since before the rising costs — that advocates called on the federal government to create a national school lunch program.
Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, and Karina Gould, the federal minister of families, children and social development, were tasked with developing a national school food policy and a national school nutritious meal program in December 2021. To this date, Canada is the only G7 country without such a program.
“The pandemic hit and what we saw from that was the awareness of food insecurity. And it came to the forefront that families were struggling,” Stoyles said. “Now we have the inflation, the cost of food, with no emergency funding from the federal government, which is what organizations like us depended on during the pandemic. But the need is still great and it’s growing.”
According to Stoyles, one in four children across Newfoundland and Labrador are experiencing food insecurity. Her organization, Kids Eat Smart, continues to serve 40,000 meals daily to school-age children. And the program “has no choice” but to pay a higher price for healthy items such as fruits and vegetables.
“This is a critical time where it has to happen,” she says about a national school lunch program. “We need to invest in it.”
Long road to Canada’s school lunch policy
Debbie Field, co-ordinator of the National Coalition for Healthy School Food, is hopeful a national school lunch policy will be announced in the next few weeks.
The school food worker told The Current that there have been consultations between the provinces, territories and Indigenous communities over the last few months, as Gould and Bibeau worked to develop a national policy.
Field attributes the long wait for a federally-supported school lunch program to the complexity of these talks. In Canada, education is the responsibility of provincial governments — and a new policy on school lunches requires their involvement.
Ideally, Field expects the national school lunch program to provide the funding so that individual communities will have a sense of stability and not be dependent on their own fundraising.
“The provinces have to send a clear message to Minister Gould and to the prime minister that they’re willing to accept the money and work in partnership and create standards, following a healthy food guide and making sure no kids are stigmatized,” Field said. “There’s a lot of agreement between the provinces and territories and the federal government on this.”
“A school food program can make a big difference in kids’ lives now.”