The start of another school year serves to remind us just how far behind we are when it comes to promoting nutrition in our educational system.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but there should be—or at least a taxpayer-funded hot one for our schoolchildren.
My son Emile started junior kindergarten this month, a transition less transitional than most since his daycare was on the other side of same building. The big change is that we now have to make him lunch every day, one that’ll fit in his Yellow Submarine lunchbox, not require a bowl or plate, and survive a hot cloakroom. We’re doing our best with chopped veggies and fruit, humus and olives, cheese sandwiches, and hard-boiled eggs, but it’s a challenge and can’t compare to what he’s used to eating.
For the past few years in daycare, he’s been served fresh, hot, healthy meals made from scratch by Real Food For Real Kids, a Parkdale catering company started by a couple opposed to the processed foods then being served to their own child in daycare.
But even though I still see their delivery truck parked in front of the school every morning, their food isn’t available to kindergarten kids. Initially, I thought they must be daycare-exclusive. Turns out they do serve hot lunches to elementary schools—just not ours, because they didn’t get the minimum 60 parents to sign up for the program last year.
And so I discovered the inequality of our school system’s meal programs.
Schools in wealthier areas get the option of parent-paid catered hot lunches while some schools in marginalized neighbourhoods get partially government-subsidized “student nutrition programs” prepared in onsite kitchens. But neither are an option for schools in the middle, or the ones that can’t fundraise enough or don’t have facilities, or for the less-well-off kids in well-to-do schools, or for kids whose parents just aren’t concerned about nutrition. (One Toronto Star article mentioned kids at one east-end school bringing Ziploc bags of cookies for lunch.)
Our school does have a subsidized snack program requiring a minimal parental contribution—but it’s not universal and it’s not lunch. And the more I dig into this issue, the more I realize how patchwork the current system is, how much room it leaves for kids to fall through the nutritional cracks, and what the long-term implications are for children whose parents are instilling bad nutritional habits.
What we need is a universal hot-lunch program for every single elementary school student, no matter where they live or how much their parents earn. This is not just a poverty issue—it’s an across-the-board health issue with economic implications, too.
Hungry kids are obviously the biggest concern, with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) reporting that, “one in every three children in Toronto lives in poverty and 40 per cent of all children come to school hungry each day. It can be as high as 68 per cent in our most at-risk communities.” (TDSB currently provides 147,000 “meals” every school day, though they don’t differentiate between breakfast, lunch, or a snack.)
But it’s not just about supplementing food, it’s about teaching kids to eat healthy. Childhood obesity has doubled in the past three decades and while it may be a slightly bigger problem among lower-income families, it exists across all income brackets.
How bad of a problem? Thirty per cent of Canadian children and youth are overweight or obese and, in a 2010 speech, NDP MP Olivia Chow said, “we know that 12-year-old boys are 14 pounds heavier than they were 20 years ago, and girls are 11 pounds heavier. We know that one in four children aged 6 to 11 are overweight or obese. We know more than a quarter of our teenagers are overweight and half, especially girls, skip breakfast.”
So what are we doing about it?
Well, Ontario passed the New School Food and Beverage Policy (NSFBP) in fall 2011 banning unhealthy foods and sugary drinks. But it primarily affected high-school cafeterias and vending machines, since it didn’t apply to homemade lunches, and elementary lunch programs are haphazard.
Furthermore, by high school, it’s apparently already too late to implement such measures. The immediate aftermath of the NSFBP was falling revenues, because kids were going offsite for less-healthy food. The TDSB responded by closing 32 cafeterias, though they’ve now enlisted celeb chef Susur Lee to improve the remaining menus and draw students back to healthy food.
But what might work even better is teaching them that healthy, fresh, non-processed food can also taste good while they’re still developing their eating habits as young children.
The school system takes care of our kids during the day—and, unlike high-schoolers, elementary students can’t hike off to McDonald’s. So take advantage of the fact that we can control one of their meals each day. Get them hooked on healthy food while they’re still open to it.
Yes, it will cost money—at least $200 per student per year. A Toronto Star article recently reported it costs $400,000 to cover a one-year meal program for Thorncliffe Park Public School’s 1,300 students and the 700 kids in the new adjoining all-kindergarten school.
Ministry of Education spokesman Gary Wheeler told the Star “provincial funding covers up to 15 per cent of the total cost of each program, the remaining 85 per cent comes from the local community.” In communities like this school’s, where the poverty rate is 44 per cent, getting the difference from parental contributions and local fundraising is a challenge.
But all kids deserve the same healthy head start in life. It’s time for the government (federal, provincial, and municipal) to pick up the bill for a universal student nutrition program. In fact, we’re the only G8 country to not have a national policy.
Ideally, money shouldn’t matter when we’re talking about our children’s health. But it does. Thing is, the high short-term costs will be offset when some of the kids grow up healthier because obesity is currently costing the Canadian economy as much as $7 billion annually. (The estimated economic cost in Ontario alone is $4.5 billion.)
Liberal MP Kristy Duncan, who says only 10-15 per cent of Canadian kids have access to school meals, estimated that for every dollar spent on school-meal programs, three are gained. Noting the impacts of such programs—“better grades and health, increased motivation, improved likelihood of graduation, and decreased absenteeism and violence”—she said each graduate, compared to a dropout, contributes an additional $75,000 annually to the economy through higher salaries and taxes and lower healthcare costs and social assistance.
“If providing food at school increases graduation rates by only three percent,” she added, “a pan-Canadian school-meals program in high schools at a cost of $1.25 a day could result in an annual net payback of more than $500 million.” And then there’s the $1.5 billion she says could be injected into the domestic farming industry through locally sourced ingredients.
So even if our educational system is forever battling a budget crisis, a universal school-meals program like they have in Sweden or Japan might even make us money if we look at the bigger picture. Consider it an investment.
I’m not alone on this. In March, the Healthy Kids Panel submitted their recommendations to the Ontario government in a paper called No Time to Wait: The Health Kids Strategy. Not surprisingly, they called for “a universal school-nutrition program for all Ontario publicly funded elementary and secondary schools.”
Yes, it’s cheaper to just ban bad food, but any parent will tell you that working the verboten angle alone just entices kids to outsmart you. You need to get them wanting good food, and the only way to do that is to feed it to them, and the only way to guarantee that for all kids is through healthy and tasty universal school meals.
So if we really care about our childhood obesity epidemic, and the adult obesity issues that follow, then it’s time to finally put our money where our kids mouths are.