The Hamilton Spectator

Tackling child hunger


A strong public school system is intended to be society’s great equalizer, providing all children, whatever their family circumstan­ces, with the opportunit­y to learn, thrive and compete.

Even the best of schools can’t succeed, however, when students arrive hungry, with the deleteriou­s effects on behaviour, study habits, learning capacity and mental health that hunger brings.

So the proposed national school food program announced this week by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is as welcome as it is essential in a just society.

The program, to be detailed in the April 16 federal budget, will be supported with $1 billion over five years and launch with a target of providing meals to 400,000 children every year, beyond those already served by existing school programs.

“This is about fairness and doing what’s right for our kids to get the best start in life,” the prime minister said.

At present, nearly one in four Canadian children do not get enough to eat, he said, and hunger disproport­ionately impacts children from lower-income families and from racialized and Indigenous communitie­s.

There has been criticism that announceme­nt of the program is the desperate measure of a party struggling in the polls, when, in fact, it has been long promised, pledged in the 2021 Liberal platform.

There will be logistical challenges in co-ordinating with provinces and territorie­s, municipali­ties and Indigenous partners and stakeholde­rs. But there is no denying the program meets a need.

Canada had been the only G7 country without a national school nutrition program, according to the Breakfast Club of Canada.

With the impact of inflation and rising grocery prices, food bank use has surged across Canada, with agencies reporting that a third of food bank users are children.

The four pillars of learning are said to be: focused attention, active engagement, correction and error feedback, and consolidat­ion through repetition.

Hunger undercuts all those essentials, diminishin­g the concentrat­ion and energy levels necessary to learn.

Common symptoms of hunger are unexplaine­d absences or recurring illness, changing appearance, poor performanc­e.

Besides an inability to focus, hungry children can become hyperactiv­e, aggressive, irritable, anxious or withdrawn. Those behavioura­l problems are obvious even when the underlying cause might not be.

As such, hunger impacts a child’s social interactio­ns, causes them to be more disruptive and can raise emotional stress for an entire classroom. So, hunger in children is not just someone else’s problem, but a serious public health challenge.

Empty stomachs also make for less productive students in class, meaning poorer academic performanc­e. Research has suggested that growing up in a hungry household in the first years of life, the most crucial time for a child’s developmen­t, can have negative effects on social, emotional and cognitive developmen­t and impact how a child performs years later.

As one psychologi­st put it, “The kids who enter the kindergart­en door behind tend to stay behind.”

Last year, a study published in the Canadian Medical Associatio­n Journal said lack of access to affordable healthy food can have a clinical impact on young peoples’ mental health. The more severe household food insecurity, the more likely it was that children and adolescent­s would have contact with health services for mental health or substance use disorders.

To be hungry is to live in a chronic state of stress, uncertain that even one’s most basic needs will be met. It severely jeopardize­s the academic success that is a key to future wellbeing, limits the capacity to master academic material, but also the social skills, the life skills that provide emotional well-being.

There are many challenges so complex as to defy easy or clear-cut solution. This is not one of them. Children need healthy food to reach their potential. This program will help provide that opportunit­y.

There are many challenges so complex as to defy easy or clear-cut solution. This is not one of them. Children need healthy food to reach their potential

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