Universal Healthy School Food Program?

Image depicts child's hands holding a blue school food tray with a bowl of soup, green salad, naan bread, orange slices, a glass of milk and a spoon on it.

Why School Food Matters

Healthy, nutritious food is critical for a child’s development and academic success. Yet, about 1/4 of children’s calorie intake in Canada are from food products with little nutritional value, that are not recommended in Canada’s Food Guide,  2/3 of secondary students in Canada do not eat a nutritious breakfast before school, while 1 in 6 Canadian children under age of 18 live in food insecure households. 

Studies have shown that school food programs help address child food insecurity and greatly contribute to higher intakes of fruits and vegetables, which has positive impacts on children’s physical and mental health, social connections and academic success. Yet, Canada ranks 37th out of 41 countries when it comes to providing healthy food for kids, and remains one of the only industrialized countries without a federally funded or regulated national school food program.

The existing school food programs in Canada are funded by provinces, territories, municipalities, charities, communities, families, schools, the private sector and combination of thereof – such piecemeal funding is often competitive and precarious. Currently, school food programs may be run at a classroom, school or school district scale – such a patchwork of school food programming results in significant disparities and does not fully meet the needs of all students. 

Momentum is Building for a Canada-Wide School Food Program 

The Coalition for Healthy School Food is the largest school food network in Canada: with over 220 non-profit member organizations and chapters in every province and territory, the Coalition advocates for the creation of a universal cost-shared school food program for Canada, that would see all K-12 students having daily access to healthy meals at school. Building on existing programs across the country, the Coalition envisions all schools eventually serving healthy, culturally appropriate, local and sustainable food at little or no cost to students. These programs would also include food education as food literacy, both for children and their parents, has been highlighted as critical in achieving nutritional outcomes and reducing food waste. 

Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks (VNFN) are a member of the BC Chapter of the Coalition for Healthy School Food (BC-CHSF). BC-CHSF advocates for the development of national standards, as well as significant investment from federal, provincial and municipal governments and collaboration between stakeholder groups to create a universal school food program for all children and youth. 

A Universal School Food System for BC: Research Brief 

The Single Mothers’ Alliance, a collective of woman-identifying and gender-diverse lone caregivers advocating for public policy solutions to end lone caregiver family poverty in BC, and a member of BC-CHSF, has produced a report in support of BC-CHSF’s advocacy efforts. The research brief, titled A Universal School Food System for BC shares the perspectives of low-income BC parents on the existing school food programs and builds the case for the universal school food system in British Columbia. Focus groups’ participants reflect on the critical importance of school food, share the challenges in accessing existing school food programs, and envision an ideal school food system. 

Cover of the Single Mothers' Alliance's Research Brief on A Universal School Food System in BC. Depicts three children kneeling around baskets filled with vegetables: cabbage, celery, carrots.
Cover of the Single Mothers’ Alliance’s Research Brief on A Universal School Food System in BC

Participants agree that a universal school food system can address a range of personal, financial, and social needs for their families by providing stigma-free access to healthy, nutritious and culturally-appropriate food to children regardless of their family’s income and status. 

SMA Research Participant Quote that reads: Universal school lunch covers so many needs at once. Because it meets my personal need, as a mother, to have any sort of practical help with the immense challenge of raising a child from infancy to adulthood. It keeps my kid nourished. A universal school lunch also means every kid is nourished, the same, like there's equality about that. So, it is fundamentally egalitarian
SMA Research Participant Quote

VNFN is proud to have provided outreach support and participant recruitment for this important project. At VNFN, we believe in the paramount importance of centering voices of those directly impacted by the issues and engaging diverse perspectives, knowledge and experiences in the policy processes. 

School Food in Vancouver

In 2022, Vancouver School Board (VSB) created its first-ever Food Framework that is rooted in the need for a Universal School Food Program that provides sufficient, nutritious, safe, socially just, environmentally sustainable, and culturally appropriate food to all students. VSB’s Food Framework outlines the 10-year vision, where, through VSB School Food programs, every student has access to nourishing food at school and they develop the skills they need to choose, eat, grow, prepare, and share food.

Municipal support for the National Universal School Food Program is growing: cities across Canada have passed motions in support of a National School Food Program – and the City of Vancouver was one of them. In 2020, Vancouver City Council endorsed advocacy work of the Coalition for Healthy School Food by passing a motion demonstrating City’s strong support for the Federal Government to work with the Provinces, Territories, Indigenous communities, and non-profit groups to create a Cost-Shared Universal Healthy School Food Program that ensures all school children learn basic food skills and have access to healthy, nutritious meals every day to support classroom learning while also modeling healthy eating and teaching food skills. Since 2018, the City of Vancouver has been joining #GreatBigCrunch Canada-wide movement to raise awareness about the importance of healthy school food. 

The City has also allocated transitional funding in support of meal programs through the Vancouver School Board and other community partners –  City of Vancouver’s School Food Grant funds efforts that provide access to healthy foods for school-aged children in Vancouver schools. In 2021, the program supported three organizations, in total of  $474,280, to deliver school food programs to over 500 students.  In comparison, in the same year, the City of Toronto confirmed its annual investment of $16,407,857 for student nutrition programs.  

The topic of the Universal School Food Program has received attention at the pre-election Food Justice Town Hall, hosted by VNFN and community partners. Municipal candidates highlighted the importance of healthy food for students, and expressed commitment to supporting Universal Healthy School Food Program, including ABC’s Rebecca Bligh and Victoria Jung, who were both since then elected to the City Council and School Board Trustee, respectively. 

As the newly elected Mayor and Council have been been sworn in, the VNFNs are looking forward to working closely with the BC Chapter of the Coalition for Healthy School Food and other community partners and allies, to ensure that our elected officials demonstrate their commitment by providing continued school food funding in Vancouver and working with all levels of government to realize a Universal Healthy School Food Program for all Canadian students.

Take Action 

  • Sign an open letter to support a Universal School Food System in BC
  • Donate to the to support advocacy efforts for a Universal School Food Program in BC and across Canada 
  • Support federal advocacy efforts – sign up for Coalition for Healthy School Food updates here
  • Raise awareness on the importance of Universal Healthy School Food Program – join the conversation #NourishKidsNow​ on social media 

Story by: Ksenia Stepkina 

With the sources from The Coalition for Healthy School Food

Image depicts child's hands holding a blue school food tray with a bowl of soup, green salad, naan bread, orange slices, a glass of milk and a spoon on it.