Children who eat nutritious lunches feel better and learn better. The evidence is clear and consistent. So why, in a rich country like Canada, will so many children be sitting in their new classrooms feeling hungry this week?
One in six Canadian children lives in a household too poor to put nutritious food on the table. Fewer than one in 10 Canadian children and youth are eating the amount of fruits and vegetables recommended for healthy development. Called food insecurity, insufficient access to affordable and nutritious foods is a problem that is on the rise across Canada.
Good nutrition impacts children’s health, well-being and learning, and if children are not adequately nourished during childhood, the impact can last a lifetime. Hunger in childhood has long-term adverse consequences for health.
Healthy foods, better moods
My own research reveals that school children experiencing moderate to severe food insecurity report more mood problems and lower health-related quality of life than children from food secure households.
In this research of over 5,800 Grade 5 children, mood problems were common even among children from households classed as marginally food insecure. Food insecurity was also associated with lower diet quality and higher body weight. This suggests a greater reliance on energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods when money for food is tight.
In a subsequent study, we found that lower diet quality, along with breakfast skipping and sugary drink consumption, were each associated with lower academic performance, reinforcing the value of good nutrition to the health and learning of Canadian children.
There is no better time to take action. According to a recent UNICEF report, Canada ranks 37 out of 41 countries in providing access to nutritious food for children. Canada’s mediocre ranking in child well-being among other rich countries hasn’t improved over the past decade either. We are failing our children right now. And we will continue to fail them in the future if we don’t act soon, and fast.
Action is needed to address many contributing factors to food insecurity, like low income, poverty and the increasing costs of healthy and nutritious foods. But the advantage of school food programs is that they are universally available to all children. They can support the development of healthy eating patterns for all students, regardless of income.
Universal school food programs make sense because all children attend school, spending more of their waking hours in this environment than any other. Yet Canada is one of only a few industrialized countries without a national school food program.
Instead, school food provision is left up to individual provinces and territories, meaning there are no federally mandated standards for foods served or sold in schools. This leads to inequitable access to nutritious foods during school hours for students from across the country.
The right thing to do
The Coalition for Healthy School Food, comprised of 30 organizations across Canada, is calling for an investment of $1 billion, phased in over five years, to establish a cost-shared Universal Healthy School Food Program. This will enable all students in Canada to have access to healthy meals at school every day.
While this may seem like a lot of money, the return on investment for school food programs is an impressive $3 to $10 for every dollar invested. This represents the added value to a country’s overall development, including increased productivity due to improvements in educational achievement.
Given the burden that chronic diseases already place on the Canadian health care system — a cost estimated at $190 billion each year — a $1 billion investment in the health of our next generation is a small price to pay.
Public and political support are essential to address the systemic barriers that undermine the health of children across Canada. If we want to improve the health of our population, from the youngest to the oldest, we must examine why so few of us are able to adopt healthy behaviours. And this requires us to look at our social norms and values that make it so hard to access healthy foods.
With food prices on the rise, and a food environment that is not supportive of health, we have to move beyond a focus on individual choice and responsibility as a solution to child hunger. Our children deserve more, and better, when it comes to good nutrition.
A national school food program is, put simply, the right thing to do.