Vancouver Sun

Time is right for a national school food program

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

- 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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