Time is right for a na­tional school food pro­gram

It would help our eco­nomic re­cov­ery, Gisèle Yas­meen and Debbie Field write.

Vancouver Sun - - OPINION - Gisèle Yas­meen is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Food Se­cure Canada and Debbie Field is co-or­di­na­tor of the Coali­tion for Healthy School Food.

The speech from the throne com­mits to strength­en­ing lo­cal food sup­ply chains, to a fem­i­nist ac­tion plan to en­sure women stay in the work­force and to in­vest­ing in cli­mate-friendly job cre­ation. This ap­proach is long over­due. One way to stim­u­late the eco­nomic re­cov­ery and sup­port women and fam­i­lies and the health and well-be­ing of all chil­dren, is by in­vest­ing in a uni­ver­sal, cost­shared na­tional school food pro­gram.

The gov­ern­ment of Canada should fol­low through on its com­mit­ment in Bud­get 2019 and be con­sis­tent with the Food Pol­icy for Canada to de­velop a na­tional school food pro­gram, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the prov­inces, ter­ri­to­ries and Indige­nous lead­ers, who al­ready in­vest con­sid­er­ably in school food. With schools open­ing, Canada needs such a pro­gram more than ever. If well de­signed, this can serve as a strong in­sti­tu­tional pro­cure­ment mech­a­nism re­sult­ing in mul­ti­ple ben­e­fits re­lated to health, so­cial justice, the econ­omy and the en­vi­ron­ment.

For chil­dren to be healthy dur­ing the pan­demic and be able to con­cen­trate and learn, school food pro­grams need to con­tinue. Yet with­out a na­tional pro­gram to set clear guide­lines that pro­mote serv­ing healthy food in COVID-19 com­pli­ant ways, schools and school boards are be­ing overly cau­tious, mov­ing away from serv­ing fresh food, re­strict­ing vol­un­teers and youth en­gage­ment in cook­ing and grow­ing food. COVID-19 could knock school food pro­grams off track when ev­ery­thing we know shows that strong im­mune sys­tems for chil­dren are so nec­es­sary dur­ing a global pan­demic.

Canada is the only G7 coun­try with­out such a pro­gram and UNICEF ex­pressed con­cerns about the state of child nu­tri­tion in this coun­try in its 2017 re­port, which ranked Canada 37th out of 41 wealthy coun­tries in terms of chil­dren hav­ing suf­fi­cient ac­cess to nu­tri­tious food.

For chil­dren to be healthy dur­ing the pan­demic ... food pro­grams need to con­tinue.

A well-de­signed pro­gram would ad­dress the health and well-be­ing of all chil­dren in Canada to de­velop healthy eat­ing habits for life.

COVID-19 has also mag­ni­fied struc­tural in­equal­i­ties that ex­isted prior to the global pan­demic. Food in­se­cu­rity was on the rise be­fore this cri­sis, af­fect­ing 4.4 mil­lion Cana­di­ans. Women have been par­tic­u­larly im­pacted. UN Women and YWCA Canada have un­der­scored the im­pact of COVID-19 on women, who are of­ten the care­givers at home and in so­ci­ety.

Food in­se­cu­rity also dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fects Black and Indige­nous house­holds, a re­flec­tion of sys­temic racism and the on­go­ing im­pacts of colo­nial­ism. And ap­prox­i­mately half of all Black, Indige­nous and Peo­ple of Colour are women. In the same way that women need ad­e­quate child care to fully par­tic­i­pate in the work­force, a na­tional school food pro­gram is nec­es­sary for an eco­nomic re­cov­ery plan.

Through the Coali­tion for Healthy School Food, an al­liance of more than 135 or­ga­ni­za­tions, we al­ready have con­crete ex­am­ples of how fund­ing to school food or­ga­ni­za­tions can link farm­ers to con­sumers, and strengthen the re­silience of lo­cal food sys­tems. A ded­i­cated school food fund of $200 mil­lion would al­low in­vest­ments such as stoves and fridges for school kitchens and re­sources for groups to pi­lot and eval­u­ate best prac­tices; and would fos­ter col­lab­o­ra­tion with the prov­inces.

The re­cent $2-bil­lion an­nounce­ment of fed­eral sup­port for the prov­inces to­wards the safe re­open­ing of schools, cou­pled with the $11-mil­lion an­nounce­ment of the Québec gov­ern­ment re­gard­ing school food, is par­tic­u­larly timely in this re­gard. All prov­inces and ter­ri­to­ries and some cities are also in­vest­ing in school food. A na­tional pro­gram would ease the bur­den for women and chil­dren.

No other sin­gle pol­icy mea­sure could do more to put into ac­tion the sen­ti­ments ex­pressed in the throne speech about food than a na­tional school food pro­gram for Canada to sup­port the health and well-be­ing of chil­dren, fam­i­lies and work­ing women, while sup­port­ing and strength­en­ing lo­cal economies and food sys­tems.

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