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Students from Brock Public School tour the greenhouse on a visit to the Food Share program.

"Healthy food for all" is the noble sentiment uniting Canada's school food advocates, but the country is nowhere near a cohesive vision for national student nutrition.

Entrepreneurial programs designed to put healthy food in schools are cropping up across the country like never before, connecting farmers to school salad bars in British Columbia, putting culinary students in charge of alternative cafeterias in Ontario and improving grades in high-risk neighbourhoods.

Despite these initiatives and studies that link school food to increased success in the classroom, Canada is unlikely to shed its title as the only G8 country without a national meal program. The federal government says it has no plans to take on school food.

"We see education very clearly as a provincial/territorial jurisdiction, so it's nothing that's being considered by our government at this point in time," said Steve Outhouse, a spokesman for Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

Without an obvious umbrella to unite the disparate school food programs across the country and the advocates backing them, the path forward for the meals lobby remains unclear.

However, the cause is far from doomed. Breakfast and snack programs have survived thus far – grown, even – on a mish-mash of funding from municipal and provincial governments, non-profits, local fundraising and charities. If advocates plan to pursue a more cohesive, cross-country strategy, though, they will have to reconcile some divisive questions. Is the goal of the program to provide healthier food to students, or just a supplement to reduce hunger? Should students who can afford to pay for meals be charged for them, or should subsidies be used to make meals universally free?

"If I were doing a national program, I would do whatever I could that would be free for all, even if the best I could do was a mid-morning snack for everybody," said Janet Poppendieck, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York's Hunter College and author of the recent book Free For All: Fixing School Food in America. "I would argue for a program that was integrated with the curriculum and involved teaching kids about food, raising consciousness about food."

Part of raising that consciousness, some argue, involves teaching students about the true value of food. Providing it for free may risk sacrificing that lesson; on the other hand, charging for school food might lower participation in the program, jeopardize its benefit and risk stigmatizing those who cannot afford to pay.

Debbie Field, director of the non-profit FoodShare, oversees a healthy cafeteria in one Toronto high school that is partially subsidized. Students are still asked to pay $4 for lunch. "If it was free, all of them would eat," Ms. Field said.

She believes this in spite of the fact that the healthy cafeteria offers students only one meal option each day. It buoys a controversial theory Ms. Poppendieck newly subscribes to, which is that schools should decide what kids eat rather than pandering to their preferences.

"Selling food to kids puts their consumer preferences in the driver's seat," she said. "Those are preferences shaped by advertising. We're the adults. We need to be in charge of what kids eat during the school day."

Inhibiting schools from taking the reins, though, is the fact that many cafeterias are operated by for-profit contractors for whom health is not the primary concern.

"Finding a vegetable and fruit is like doing a 'Where's Waldo' type exercise," said Mary McKenna, a school nutrition expert with the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy at the University of New Brunswick. "But you can't fault them. Vegetables and fruit are more expensive … more perishable. If students aren't buying them … it becomes waste these companies have to absorb."

Olivia Chow, the New Democratic Party MP for the Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina, helped her late husband, former NDP leader Jack Layton, sketch out the party's vision of a national school meals strategy. It calls on the federal government for $25-million in seed money to make school meals universal in Canada. She plans to continue lobbying for it.

"There are no constitutional barriers [to]the federal government providing some financial muscle to really expand the existing grassroots programs," she said. "All it takes is political will."

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