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Students cook meals in the Screaming Avocado, a student-run cafeteria and culinary arts program at Stratford Northwestern Secondary School June 9, 2011 in Stratford, Ont. Former Food Network star-turned teacher Paul Finklestein runs the program at the Screaming Avocado, which is an innovative way to teach healthy cooking and nutrition to students.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Inside a handful of innovative schools across the country, students sit down to made-from-scratch lunches: whole wheat bread with rosemary, eggplant parmesan, burritos with local beans, sautéed kale with garlic and chilies.

At most of the country's schools, though, the brown bag still reigns. Canada is globally unique in its relaxed approach to school food. It is the only G8 country with full day classes and no national school meals program, the often fraught system that nonetheless ensures grade school children from the United States to Japan have access to some form of sustenance – either free or at subsidized prices – during each day of study.

Advocates here are still trying to make the case for why students ought to be fed anything at all. About 90 per cent of Canadian children are not provided with a meal at school unless they bring it from home. The small number of meal programs that exist endure because the administrators and volunteers who operate them are convinced of the benefits.

New research has linked meal programs to better grades, motivation, likelihood of graduation and decreases in absenteeism; providing healthy food would help counter rising rates of obesity and disease. And with a global food crisis looming, food security experts see an even loftier potential in school meals: to raise student awareness about food production and increase revenue for local producers.

"We put food last as a society," said Debbie Field, the Toronto-based director of FoodShare, a non-profit education group working to reintegrate food into school curriculums by funding school gardens and cooking classes. "We've agreed on the need to teach kids how to read," said Ms. Field, who has spent decades campaigning for school meals. "Why not teach them how to eat right?"

Canada is a blank slate on school meals, and Ms. Field and her comrades say this is an opportunity to redefine a generation's relationship with food. The provinces and territories are working toward this: Federal and provincial education and health officials will meet in Banff next week to discuss improvements to nutrient criteria for school food and beverages across the country.

Instead of worrying about taking chips out of vending machines and reducing the fat content of French fries in high-school cafeterias, some say policy-makers should be writing the playbook for sweeping cultural change.

"An important building block in a literate society is a higher level of food awareness. We've moved away from that because food has been so cheap," said Evan Fraser, a University of Guelph professor and co-author of the food security tome Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. "We need some basic food literacy. The entry point to that cultural shift is through a school nutrition program."

School meals championed

In the first half of the last century, hot lunches were served in many Canadian schools. Preparing them taught the students domestic sciences; consuming them imparted social skills.

In other developed countries, including Japan and Britain, government-mandated school meals evolved as a response to postwar food scarcity; the U.S. non-profit school feeding program was expanded because President Harry Truman viewed the meals as an investment in national security and as a means of increasing domestic consumption of homegrown food.

The tradition waned in postwar Canada.

"The rationale was that through social services, we would give people enough income that they wouldn't need to have school food," said Mary McKenna, a school nutrition expert with the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy at the University of New Brunswick.

Over time, there have been periods of increased calls for school meals. But in 2000, a report commissioned by Health Canada concluded there wasn't adequate evidence of a program's potential impact to warrant federal support. In 2009, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty rejected a proposal from a coalition of advocacy groups to use stimulus funding for a national school nutrition program.

Despite this, schools are increasingly adopting snack, breakfast or subsidized milk programs funded with donations and some local government funding. Teachers say they improve student success.

Peer-reviewed data documenting the correlations between food and learning among children in developed countries are emerging to back such anecdotal reports. A free feeding program at seven schools in Toronto's troubled Jane Street and Finch Avenue neighbourhood shows promising results. Research published this year in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition linked nutritionally balanced school lunches with improved engagement and in-class motivation, fewer disciplinary issues and lower drop-out rates. In 2010, a pair of British researchers tracked increases in math, English and science test scores – and a 14-per-cent drop in absences – among primary pupils who were fed more nutritious meals compared with a control group. Unexpectedly, improvements were more pronounced among those of middle and high socio-economic status – the children who, in theory, have enough food at home.

"School meals seem also to be more important now than in the past because children rely more on food provided at school now than three decades ago," the paper noted.

Food as a tool for change

"If we don't change the way kids eat, we're doomed," said Paul Finkelstein, a professional chef turned culinary arts teacher at Northwestern Secondary School in Stratford, Ont.

Youth obesity rates in Canada have doubled over the past 30 years; among children aged 6 to 17, the rate more than tripled to 10 per cent of the population, according to a study released in June by the Public Health Agency of Canada. The latest government estimates suggest obesity and the chronic diseases linked to it have cost the country nearly $7.1-billion.

Mr. Finkelstein, known as "Fink" during school hours, oversees an entire operation – school garden, wheat field and the Screaming Avocado, a student-run cafeteria – aimed at teaching children the value of real food and how make it for themselves. His days are filled with questions ranging from how to roast pork belly to where lemon juice comes from ("Umm, a lemon.").

"Our goal is not to train chefs. Our goal is to introduce kids to food and cooking," he said. "Food is a tool for change."

Advocates are hopeful that federal policy-makers will consider school meals in the same light.

"In Canada, we haven't even considered the whole range of possibilities that providing food in schools could offer," Ms. McKenna said. "It's such a gaping hole in our social system."

Global views on food

Outside North America, school meals are viewed more as an investment than a cost.

In France, students are fed a fresh, multi-course meal each day and taught table manners; school administrators even send suggestions for dinner recipes home as part of the effort to train young taste buds.

In Sweden, children between the ages of 6 and 16 receive a hot meal each day under laws set by the National Food Administration. Pupils choose from three entrees, a vegetarian dish and a salad bar with at least five fresh choices; milk and bread are also served.

In Brazil, where food is a constitutional right, a massive national program feeds 47 million students at 190,000 schools each day; it is championed not only for improving student nutrition, health and social development, but for providing wider employment, feeding the agricultural economy, local food system and regional economic development.

In Italy, school meals are seen as a central part of education about national culture and health. Low-income families receive a 25 per cent discount on food; for the poorest, meals are free. More than half of the meals consist of organic food.

In Japan, children aged 6 to 15 receive school meals. A government initiative aims to ensure 50 per cent of the meals are made with local ingredients.

Global views sources: Interviews; School Food Trust.

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Northwestern Secondary School as Northwest Secondary School. This version has been corrected.