Canadian Children Still Hungry

  • National Newswatch

By Kirsty Duncan, M.P. | June 03, 2013The government should begin discussions with the provincial and territorial ministers responsible for agriculture, education and health to develop a comprehensive pan-Canadian school nutrition initiative, and fully fund on-reserve aboriginal student meals.In the coming weeks, children across Canada will finish school for the summer, for what should be a time of play and recuperation. But for many more children than we would like to admit, the long break can be a time of hunger, as school feeding programs often shut down.Tragically, in some parts of our great country, families eat only one meal a day instead of three, and some family members eat, while others go hungry. No family should face such choices in Canada. No one should face such hardship, not in a country of such enormous wealth, and not in a country that has made promises to its children.In 1989, the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. Tragically, more than twenty years later, one in every seven Canadian children still struggles to have his or her basic needs met, one in four First Nations and Inuit children grows up in poverty, and over 300,000 children rely on food banks.In 1992, Canada signed the World Declaration on Nutrition, which states that access to nutritionally adequate and safe food is a right of each individual. Each of us has a responsibility to stop the betrayal of Canada's children, and make the promise a reality. Our children do not want excuses — that this is a provincial problem or is someone else's responsibility — our children need food to feed their bodies and their minds.A recent United Nations review expressed concern that vulnerable Canadian children might be falling through the cracks of a fractious federal system that lacks accountability and a clear strategy; specifically, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said that Canada needs to raise the bar on how it protects the rights of children.The recent launch of the first edition of the State of School Feeding Worldwide—produced by the UN World Food Programme in partnership with the World Bank and the Partnership for Child Development—marks the start of a concerted international effort to improve the evidence base on school feeding programmes.The report shows a global picture and analysis of school feeding programmes in developed and developing nations, and information on how governments use school meals as a “safety net” in times of crisis.Worldwide, 368 million children--roughly one out of every five--, receive a meal at school every day in 169 developed and developing countries. However, Canada remains one of the few developed countries without a student nutrition program. American children have been fed at school under the National School Lunch Act since 1946; and in Finland and Sweden, school meal programs are seen as investments in children's health, and not as tax drains. Globally since the year 2000, 21 countries started their own school meals programmes that are financed and managed by governments; and in the last five years, at least 38 countries have scaled-up their school feeding programme in response to a crisis, such as armed conflict, financial instability, increasing food prices, or a natural disaster.While 59 countries began or scaled-up programmes, Canada failed to take federal action, despite the recognition by Dr. David Butler-Jones, former Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, who stressed: “As a result of being hungry at school … children may not reach their full developmental potential – an outcome that can have a health impact throughout their entire lives”.School feeding programmes achieve much more than feeding children. They provide a range of benefits in education, health, and agriculture, yet in Canada, forty percent of elementary students and 62 percent of secondary school students do not eat a nutritious breakfast. Poor nutrition status leads to poor health outcomes for children, and Canadian children from all income brackets are vulnerable to inadequate nutrition, especially the one in five Canadian children who lives below the poverty line.Canadian research has demonstrated that school breakfast and snack programs are highly effective in providing children with nutritious diets and mitigates against childhood obesity. Research confirms the importance of such programs for those who participate, including better grades and health, increased motivation, improved likelihood of graduation, and decreased absenteeism and violence.Today global investment in school feeding programmes, most of it from government budgets, is enormous at US$ 75 billion per year. Governments understand that the return on investment is substantial; for every $1 spent by governments and donors, at least $3 is gained in economic returns.The Boston Consulting Group reports that, on average, each high-school graduate contributes an extra $75,000 to the economy. They earn higher salaries than “ drop-outs”, pay increased taxes, have lower healthcare costs, and are less dependent on social assistance.If providing food at school increases graduation rates by only three percent, a pan-Canadian school meals program in high schools at a cost of $1.25 a day could result in an annual net payback of more than $500 million.The potential economic stimulus for Canadian agriculture is also considerable. Realistically, seventy percent of a pan-Canadian nutrition program could have domestic content with an annual return to Canadian producers of $1.5 billion. As a general rule, for each dollar spent in a community, an additional two to three dollars would be generated through processing, storage, trucking, etc..Governments around the world recognize that school meal programmes also protect vulnerable children during “shocks” such as the financial, food, and fuel crises of 2008.But today, even affluent countries are struggling with austerity measures. As a result, Canadian children need school meals more than ever, as many families can no longer afford to feed them on a regular basis.The government must take a leadership role and work in collaboration with governments and citizens across our great country to improve student nutrition and to help children learn.We need concerted and effective advocacy for children and young people, particularly concerning access to nutritionally adequate and safe food, which is a right of every individual. No one ever chooses or wants to go hungry.Dr. Kirsty Duncan, M.P., is a Liberal member of parliament (Etobicoke North, elected 2008 and 2011) and critic for the Environment. She has a Ph.D. in geography (University of Edinburgh, 1992) and has taught meteorology, climatology, and climate change at the University of Windsor, corporate social responsibility and medical geography at the University of Toronto and global environmental processes at Royal Roads University. She served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization that won the 2007 Nobel Prize with Al Gore and is the author of Hunting the 1918 Flu: One Scientist's Search for a Killer Virus (University of Toronto Press, 2003), and Environment and Health: Protecting our Common Future (2008).