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Legislation vs. Logistics: Controversial School Lunches in Canada

Legislation vs. Logistics: Controversial School Lunches in Canada
Our next #30in30 #nutritionmonth blog post is from Anneke Hobson, a Food and Nutrition student from Ryerson University. Thank you for submitting!
 
Unlike any other G8 country, Canadian school cafeterias are expected to operate privately and to turn a profit. In the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan, (as well as many countries that are not part of the G8), grade-school students are provided with lunch throughout the year. In these countries, nutritional regulations make sense and arguably constitute a necessary criterion for public school feeding programs.

The World Food Programme provides free school meals (to developing nations), which also carry nutritional requirements (WFP, 2015). Canada, however, leaves schools to fend for themselves when it comes to feeding their students. This pushes the nutritional responsibility onto parents to pack lunches daily, and to poorly funded school kitchens to compete with the numerous fast-food giants across the street. This gap is bad enough when we consider household food insecurity in Canada and our goals of keeping children in school through to high-school graduation.
 
But PPM 150, effected in Ontario in 2011 (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2015), has worsened the economic (and potentially the nutritional) situation for school lunches in the Canadian context. This policy dictates specific dietary requirements without giving much-needed support or guidance to actually follow it. Without help, many school cafeterias have shut down, leaving children who do not or cannot bring food from home to spend money instead on non-school establishments (usually less healthy) or to just go hungry (definitely less healthy).
 
If we look at the history of school feeding programs in the UK, the issue is obvious. Nutritionists have estimated that English children ate healthier diets during the 1950s, when lunch was publicly provided (despite post-war rationing) than in the 1990s after Margaret Thatcher ended the lunch program (Gillard, 2003). This points clearly to the conflict: PPM 150 cannot fix the nutritional quality of food in schools alone; a publicly funded school-food program in combination with the dietary guidelines can. No school food program with no nutritional rules is equivalent to the Thatcher-era laissez-faire model and leaves children’s nutritional health to the whims of the free market. Mandating what school cafeterias can and cannot sell, though, is economic fence-sitting that does not help schools or students either. At the very least, schools need help translating the food rules into meals that students will buy, so that strained budgets are not overwhelmed by the impossibility of providing meals for 50-60 cents per meal, per student, to balance the books.

Registered dietitians can help in this endeavour by communicating with schools and suppliers, creating recipes that stick to a budget and compiling supportive resources for schools that are struggling. Strong business management might also help to keep school cafeterias running, although the nutritional knowledge is certainly required here given the demands of this detailed policy.
 
Currently, community organizations and volunteers are attempting to help schools feed their students. This is impressive and admirable given the circumstances, but it leads to inequities between cities and provinces because many parents cannot afford the time to volunteer or the money to donate, and expecting community organizations to piece together a national food system is not feasible or sustainable.
 
Canada: we support universal access to health-care; now it’s time to invest in children’s nutrition in a meaningful way.
 
References
  • Derek Gillard (2003) Food for Thought: child nutrition, the school dinner and the food industry. http://www.educationengland.org.uk/articles/22food.html
  • Ontario Ministry of Education. (2015). Healthy Schools: New School Food and Beverage Policy. http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/healthyschools/policy.html
  • World Food Programme. (2015). School Meals. https://www.wfp.org/school-meals

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