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Why Canada needs to make sure kids don’t go to school hungry

It's back-to-school time, so as you prepare the kids' lunchboxes, consider this: As many as one in seven Canadian children will go to school hungry. In some poorer communities, up to half make the trip to school with an empty belly.

Yet, "Canada is the only G8 country without a national school-based feeding program," said Alison Howard, co-author of a new report entitled Enough For All: Household Food Insecurity in Canada. The report, published by the Conference Board of Canada, estimates that some two million people in this country suffer from "food insecurity" – meaning nutritious food is sometimes or always unavailable or unaffordable to them.

Nearly half of those are school-aged children. Poor nutrition has an immediate impact on their physical well-being and has the potential to undermine their economic well-being for a lifetime.

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Education is one of the most powerful determinants of health. Children cannot learn, they cannot thrive, if they are not well-nourished.

So why do we not feed kids at school? Why do we not ensure we fill their bodies with nutrition in the same way we strive to fill their minds with knowledge?

The Conference Board thinks we should. It is interesting that the call is coming from a conservative business group, not from the radical fringe. They recognize a good and necessary investment when they see one.

The knee-jerk response to any suggestion kids be fed at school is that it is too costly, that school boards are already strapped for cash.

Well, it costs about $1 a day to feed children breakfast, and a little more than that for lunch, if done in an organized fashion.

It is a considerable sum when you multiply it by tens or hundreds of thousands of children (depending on whether programs are targeted at poor kids only or are universal). But it is still only a fraction of what we already invest in educating a child. And feeding kids is not just an expense, it has a payback, in the short- and long-term.

It is estimated that, where there are school breakfast programs, teachers gain about 30 minutes a day in effective teaching time. That is because hungry children are disruptive and have more trouble concentrating. Schools with meal programs have better attendance, improved test scores and fewer dropouts. Good nutrition leads to better academic performance, and better prospects.

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The Conference Board recommendation of a national feeding program does not imply a huge new bureaucracy is needed.

Canada already has a host of breakfast, lunch and snack programs in schools. They include:

  • Breakfast for Learning, founded by editors at Canadian Living Magazine, which feeds some 300,000 kids;
  • Breakfast Clubs of Canada, which feeds another 120,000 daily;
  • Kids Eat Smart Foundation, 50,000 or so;
  • Farm to School, 20,000 or more.

There are also a number of initiatives in individual schools, within school boards, and within provinces and territories, including free food and subsidized food.

All of these programs already get tax dollars, and they are supplemented by corporate donations (mostly of food like juice, yogurt and fresh produce) and individual donations. (Some are also thinly veiled subsidy programs for farmers and the food industry.)

We already have most of the elements in place for school-based feeding, we just need a more organized, concerted effort instead of a patchwork of programs.

We also need an unflinching commitment to an over-arching goal: No child in a Canadian classroom should be hungry.

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Every rumbling of an empty stomach is the sound of opportunity lost, a sign of educational malpractice.

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