What We Know – and Don’t Know – About the National School Nutrition Program | CBC News

The federal government’s plans to launch a national school nutrition program may have left some people with more questions than answers about how it will actually work.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hopes the program will provide meals to 400,000 children annually by the 2024-25 school year.

“We all want children to have the best start in life, even the most vulnerable,” Trudeau said in announcing the program on Monday.

However, not many details have been released. Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the record. Further details could be announced in the federal budget, scheduled for April 16.

In the meantime, here’s what we know — and don’t know — about the $1 billion program.

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For whom is that?

That’s what the federal government says in a statement The goal is to provide meals to 400,000 children each year “beyond those provided through existing school feeding programs.”

Debbie Field, coordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, says about two million children already participate in school nutrition programs.

The other 400,000 are at the 1,000 schools that are on waiting lists for such programs, Field told CBC News.

A national program would also help vulnerable families overcome the stigma that comes with participating in programs that only target low-income students, says Rachel Engler-Stringer, a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan.

“There are a lot of kids who aren’t participating but could be participating,” Engler-Stringer told CBC Saskatoon Morning. “There are many families who don’t participate because they are stigmatized.”

Is this a new program?

Not exactly. Don’t expect every child in Canada to suddenly be served a hot lunch. The program will support existing provincial and territorial programs.

Field said there’s a good chance Ottawa will transfer the new money to those jurisdictions so that “it’s not a new bureaucracy, it just flows directly.”

Children's hands touch empty plates
Children sit with plates at the Boys and Girls Club East Scarborough on Monday. Canada’s current school feeding programs are an uneven patchwork at the provincial and local levels. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

“What we hope to see in the budget are the details of how this will happen,” Field said.

She wants Ottawa to contribute to the cost of feeding school children, just as it does by funding child care at $10 a day.

Programs look different in different schools, regions and provinces. It depends on the need. Some programs Offer a mid-morning snack or breakfast, lunch, or “grab and go” container. Some are free, others pay what you can.

Prince Edward Island Bon appetit program offers all students from kindergarten through 12th grade a daily lunch (e.g. mini pancakes and yogurt or a ham and cheese snack box) on a pay-what-you-can model. Meals are $5.75 each for those who can afford the full price.

BC offers one website to help schools develop programs that meet the needs of their students.

Field says parents will likely see the impact of the federal program at every school. So if you’re in a community with a school that already has a program, your child is more likely to have access to that and probably better food.

If your school doesn’t have a program, “that will give the provinces and territories a little more money so they can expand,” she said.

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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says he will “put pressure on the government” to fund school lunches for children across the country.

How good are the existing programs?

It varies. Programs exist in most provinces and territories responsible for education, but are “very uneven,” according to York University Food Policy for Canada Website.

“Many needs remain unaddressed…participation rates fluctuate greatly,” it says.

Researchers at the University of Toronto confirmed this opinion a report for 2021and said that the thousands of programs are “very different in design.”

They are provided by charities, school boards, governments, churches and businesses.

According to this, only about 65 percent of children in the Toronto area took part in the school feeding programs offered there Data for 2023 compiled by the University of Toronto from local surveys and focus groups with parents and caregivers.

Barriers to accessing these programs included a lack of culturally appropriate food, program cuts including less food, and reduced availability. The investigation also found that some schools lacked kitchens and volunteers.

A class full of young students sits at their desks.
Students at St. Roch Catholic School in Toronto eat Cheerios, oranges and yogurt during their morning snack. (CBC)

Several provinces and territories have recently increased their budgets for student meal programs.

This also includes a current one Ontario Promise for an additional $5 million (bringing the total amount to $38 million in 2023), a Quebec Promise for $34 million over five years and a BC Promise for $214 million over three years, to name a few.

End of February, Nova Scotia announced it would invest $18.8 million in a new lunch program for students in the public school system.

“The current landscape of school nutrition programs is complex,” Katerina Maximova, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said by email.

“There are different mandates, different types of programs, multiple and overlapping funding sources, and limited program coordination, monitoring and evaluation. This makes it difficult to monitor and ensure consistency of standards.”

How will Canada’s program work?

A Stakeholder report 2023 to establish a national program, compiled by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) can provide some guidance.

Respondents said they support a “universal program delivery model” where every child has access to school meals to reduce stigma.

“Although programs often target low-income households, there is no ‘stereotypical’ hungry child,” the report said.

Participants also supported aligning any guidelines with the Canadian Food Guide.

Other reports have echoed these findings. For example the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph wrote last year that a national program would ideally provide universal access to nutritious food for all students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

“What we know from best practices is that all children need to eat in school, not just children from a low-income household,” Field said.

Although it is initially possible that the funds will be allocated more to low-income neighborhoods, they should still apply to all schools, said Engler-Stringer.

“We could start there and build from there,” she said.

Why do we need it?

Almost one in four children in Canada do not get enough food says the governmentand more than a third of food bank users are children Food Banks Canada. According to the charity, food insecurity among children has increased by 29 percent in the last year Children First Canada.

Canada is also the only G7 country that does not have a national school feeding program or national standards Breakfast Club of Canada. Advocates have argued that a national program is needed to fill gaps created by the patchwork of regional, local and nonprofit programs that are under pressure due to scarce resources and high food prices.

And a full stomach helps with learning. There’s evidence that hunger affects focus and concentration, says Engler-Stringer.

“It’s one of those tools we need to help kids fully participate in class and be the best students they can be.”

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