When a teen was shot to death in the halls of a Toronto high school in 2007, it sparked a hunger among educators in the troubled neighbourhood for new ways to stem violence and offer a better future to their students.
Instead of putting in metal detectors in the area's schools, they came up with a unique, softer approach to reducing aggression and improving concentration in the classroom: food.
"The administrators wanted a nutrition program – they wanted to make sure every kid was fed," said Mena Paternostro, co-ordinator of student nutrition with the Toronto District School Board. "They came out loud and clear and told us a hungry kid was an angry kid."
After some creative fundraising by the Toronto Foundation for Student Success, the school board's charitable arm, a universal morning meal pilot program was implemented at seven schools – three high schools and four primary schools that feed into them. Now, three years later, there are strong signs that the principals were right: Not only do satiated students exhibit less aggression, they attend more classes, get fewer suspensions and receive higher grades, according to interim calculations by the TDSB.
The results of the initiative, called Feeding Our Future, surprised even the administrators who lobbied for the program on a hunch, and are fuelling hopes the pilot will inspire others like it across the country. Correlations between academic achievement and school meal consumption in developed countries have rarely been proved. (Much of the research on school feeding has focused on combatting malnutrition in developing countries.)
"I was blown away," said Monday Gala, a former vice-principal at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute, the high school in Toronto's gritty Jane-Finch corridor where Jordan Manners was killed in 2007. Mr. Gala is now vice-principal at Emery Collegiate Institute. "I was keeping my fingers crossed that the data would show some kind of correlation," he said.
By correlating student surveys that tracked eating habits at home and at school with test scores, school board researchers have concluded that middle-school students who eat some food each morning score higher in math and science. (Forty-four per cent of students who did not eat were deemed academically at risk versus 28 per cent who did.)
At the high-school level, students who eat before or at school were more likely to graduate than their hungry counterparts. At the time the information was collected, 78 per cent of Grade 10 students who reported eating morning meals most days were on track to complete their diploma (meaning they earned 15 or more credits) versus 61 per cent who went without food.
If the board is ultimately able to show that the program increases graduation rates, their study will have significant implications for Canada's economy and be a boost to those who argue school meal programs ought to be viewed as an investment, not a cost.
In a previous analysis, the Boston Consulting Group suggested that on average, each high-school graduate contributes an extra $75,000 to the economy. Grads earn higher salaries than dropouts, pay increased tax revenue, log lower health-care costs, are less reliant on social assistance and are more likely to have children who also graduate from high school.
If providing food at school increases graduation rates by just 3 per cent, based on the BCG figures, a national school meals program implemented in Canada's high schools at a cost of $1.25 a day would result in a net payback of more than $500-million to government coffers. If the graduation rate increased by 5 per cent but the cost of meals remained the same, the payback would be more than $1-billion.
Until that benefit can be clearly demonstrated, though, school food programs in Canada, including Feeding Our Future, will face financial uncertainty. There is no national framework to support the provision of school meals in Canada. Across the provinces, the spread of snack and breakfast programs is a patchwork. These programs range widely in cost and content. Some are free to students, but others require them to pay a nominal fee; their availability usually hinges not on need but on the creativity, motivation and fundraising capacity of the parents and volunteers who run them.
While some government funding for snack and breakfast programs is available at the provincial or municipal level, it often adds up to only a few cents per student. In Ontario, funds from the provincial and municipal government pay for between 20 and 30 cents per meal, depending on the region.
Glenford Duffus, the superintendent who oversees the schools in Feeding Our Future, said he hopes policy makers will begin to see the benefits that could flow from a more substantial investment.
"Without any shadow of doubt, [I]am inclined to believe that the more well off our children are … the more advanced we're going to be economically," Mr. Duffus said.
A secondary and often overlooked advantage of a universal meal program, he said, is that it removes the stigma that often prevents truly hungry kids from asking for help.
"People have a sense of pride around what poverty means and they don't just go readily to accept what they would call handouts," he said. "Making it a school initiative where it was open to everybody gets rid of that kind of notion. You remove the stigma, the fear, and the kids eat."
By the numbers
$75,000 - The additional amount a person contributes to the economy if he or she is a high-school graduate. Among other things, the figure is based on the higher salaries they earn and the increased tax they pay.
1,570,339 - The number of high-school students enrolled in Canadian schools.
$380-million - The amount it would cost the government each school year if it spent $1.25 per student per day on healthy food.
$500-million - The net payback to government coffers over time for each year's graduates if graduation rates increase by just 3 per cent