It's a billion dollar request that would give every Canadian student the option to eat a healthy meal at school. The Coalition for Healthy School Food hopes the Trudeau government will consider that in the upcoming budget to help fund a cost-shared Universal Healthy School Food Program to serve a healthy meal or snack at little or no cost to students every day. Currently, Canada is the only G8 country without a national school food program. According to the coalition, 15% of Canadian kids come to school without eating breakfast. And while provincial governments help contribute towards breakfast programs in some centres, it amounts to roughly 3 and a half cents a day per student compared to $1.50 a day in the U.S.
In Canadian schools that have breakfast programs, administrators are lauding the results.
Well before the school bell rings, well before the classrooms fill up with students, these students at Lester B. Pearson High School in Ottawa’s east end are filling up with breakfast. On the menu today are bagels and cream cheese, eggs and fresh fruit.
Grade 10 student Mimi Massolas is a regular visitor, “Usually I can't have breakfast at home and my mom doesn't buy breakfast food so I come here every morning at 8:00 and I get breakfast.”
Programs like this one at Lester B. Pearson are taking the bite out of hunger, giving these kids the best start to their school day.
“It’s good for people that have lower income because it's giving them nutritious food,” says Grade 8 student Laine Dangerfield.
About 20 percent of kids in Canada live below the poverty line. That’s one in five. Breakfast programs like this one reach about ten percent of the school population, meaning it is likely that many kids are still going to school hungry. There's no means test with the current school breakfast programs; students self-identify and any student can come. At Lester B. Pearson, more than 140 of them do, every day, for a variety of reasons.
Students like Cindy Peck, in Grade 12, “I don’t have time to eat breakfast in the morning because I drive my dad to work for 6 a.m. and then I have to get ready for school.”
But these programs run on shoestring budgets. The Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services caps provincial investment at 15% through the Student Nutrition Program. Local agencies, like the Ottawa Network for Education, are responsible for generating funding to cover the balance of programs costs. In Ottawa, that amounts to more than half a million dollars every year just to maintain current funding.
Where these school food programs are offered thoug, the results for students have been astonishing.
“We know after 25 years of these programs running,” says Carolyn Hunter, the Director of the Ottawa School Breakfast Program, “that they have an important impact on the student population. We know kids doing better academically as a result.”
Yet Canada remains one of the only industrialized countries without a national school food program. The United States has one, so does Finland, Japan and India has the largest program in the world.
Now a growing network of 32 non-profit groups from every province, calling itself the Coalition for Healthy School Food, wants a billion dollar commitment from the federal government to feed kids at school.
“We should be investing in our children,” says Bill Jeffrey, the Executive Director of the Centre for Health Science and Law, one of the coalition members.
“We think if we add more taxes to food that are unhealthy and take them away from foods that are healthy, there would be more than enough left over to pay for a schools meal program,” he says.
The students at Lester B. Pearson aren't concerned about the politics behind it all. They're just glad to start their day with a full belly.
"Before going to class,” says grade 12 student Christian Bonhomme as he digs into a bowl of fresh fruit, “I need to get energy to concentrate in class.”