Across the country, community organizations, school food programs, school districts and parents continue to pay close attention to recommendations as governments continue to release guidelines and frameworks for what the return to school will look like. As of the end of July all provinces and territories have released some form of documentation framing what school food should look like come September. Many of these guidelines are understandably vague and do not include the specific information that school food organizations need to plan for when schools resume. To address COVID-19 concerns, some provincial governments and school boards are looking to increase the serving of pre-packaged food in schools, either exclusively or in conjunction with meals served by staff.
Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program. As a result, the operation of school food programs across the country vary greatly depending on provincial, municipal, and local school board policies. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for a national school food program as provinces have cancelled in-person school and as a result limited the delivery of school food programs that provide students and their families with essential support.
A review of the currently-available guidelines for re-opening in September 2020 show that the Government of Alberta and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador both encourage the use of pre-packaged meals but also allow prepared meals to be served by designated staff. The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is currently mandating the exclusive use of pre-packaged food.
As of the end of July, a number of other provincial governments, such as the Government of British Columbia and the Government of Manitoba, have not yet released detailed guides on food safety and food programming within schools. The lack of clear policy and commitment to healthy, whole food by Canadian provinces and territories is leaving many families unsure if programs will run, and to what extent their children will have access to healthy, fresh, and nutritious food.
Champions of healthy school food, including the Coalition for Healthy School Food, have been raising the alarm that overly cautious public health guidance may restrict the provision of fresh and whole foods in schools, which would negatively impact children’s health. To meet this challenge, school food practitioners are developing menus rich in vegetables, fruits, and other healthy foods that can be pre-packaged and brought into schools, but many are also concerned about the increased costs associated with packaging the meals.
Advocates are concerned that a reliance on pre-packaged foods will also lead to an increase in single-use plastics products. In December 2019, the Canadian government announced a ban on single-use plastics as a response to concerns by public health experts because of the potential negative health and environmental consequences of increased plastic use.
School food programs provide critical services for children and youth, and were recognized as such by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States in their July reopening guidelines. The guidelines express the important role that school food programs play in students’ educational success, and that closing such programs during COVID-19 puts students’ health at risk.
For this reason, groups such as the Coalition for Healthy School Food and its 128+ members released a media statement on July 21st. This statement called on provincial medical officers of health and local health, and educational professionals to ensure school food programs balance the need for strong public health measures with the inclusion of healthy, whole foods. Food insecurity across Canada is growing and the continuation of school food programs is necessary to ensure students are fed and not distracted by hunger during the school day.
Moving forward, we need to understand that, regardless of COVID-19, healthy school food needs to be considered an imperative, not an option.