We have invited guest blogger, Niki Black, to share some of the pressing food issues highlighted in the Eat Think Vote campaign, led by Food Secure Canada and others across Canada, in advance of the federal election on October 19, 2015. This week, Niki describes the importance of healthy food in schools for the future of our children.
How well do you learn on an empty stomach? Many of us are familiar with skipping lunches or grabbing convenient and cheap foods that fill us up temporarily, but just don’t last. Lacking the healthy fuel we need, it’s hard to concentrate and work through the energy lows. The consequences are unhealthy and unsustainable, yet we expose our children to these same habits simply by virtue of sending them to school. Maybe that’s where we learned them, too.
Canadian schools are sites of learning, but we often don’t think about the role food plays in supporting that learning or what we’re learning about food. Any school has some level of diversity and this extends to the lunch that each child brings (or doesn’t) and eats (or doesn’t). School food environments can create a reliance on highly processed products and are unwilling hotbeds of inequality. In the lunchroom, there is nothing quite as effective as peer pressure. The temptation for “cool” lunches often yields slickly-packaged and less healthy foods, heavily marketed to appeal. Many kids simply don’t have a choice, with food insecurity affecting 1 in 6 children in Canada.
We lack the investment and policy guidance to provide one of the most fundamental conditions for growth: good nutrition. The Eat Think Vote campaign calls for a Universal Healthy School Food Program to address those inequities and ensure that every child has a healthy start.
Current school nutrition initiatives are a loose patchwork of provincial policies and charitable organizations such as Breakfast for Learning Canada, but these efforts are not nearly enough. Food insecurity leaves our children at risk for poor performance, peer conflict, and health problems that can persist over the course of their lives (such as obesity). Parents and schools are trying, but they require a solid foundation. A paradigm shift is long overdue.
The nutritional challenges of our schools are symptomatic of a much deeper pathology. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter released this scathing report after his mission to Canada in May 2012. In response, organizations such as Amnesty International turn a wary eye on us and wonder why this long-respected first world nation must rely on charity to patch its policy. Why don’t we transform those international condemnations into initiatives we can be respected for? Every person has the right to enough healthy food. Every single child.
Eat Think Vote calls for a 1 billion dollar cost-shared investment over five years to create just such a transformation. Reliable, sustainable meals at school can ease the pressure on family budgets, hectic morning schedules, students’ social lives, and the planet. Children will share nutritious food with their peers, thus fostering not only better learning opportunities but a deeper sense of equality and valuable food literacy to lay the foundation for healthy habits.
What might this look like? Imagine that every child has enough nutritious food to fuel their bodies and minds, and that every child understands how to make healthy choices, even if their circumstances don’t always allow it. Imagine what a nurturing role schools will play when gardens and cooking programs are as common as lockers and monkey bars, and children can eat together and respectfully accept that people have a wide range of food needs and cultural preferences. How might our nation’s food landscape heal when these food literate children use and share their knowledge both now and as they grow? We have a golden opportunity to create an ideal environment for sustainable learning and growth.
Let’s demand the best possible outcomes for one of our most valuable resources – our new generations. Today’s children will inherit our national challenges, and how we prepare them matters to everyone.