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Jennifer Black is an associate professor, food, nutrition and health at the University of British Columbia. Rachel Engler-Stringer is an associate professor in the department of community health and epidemiology at the College of Medicine, University of Saskatchewan.

Children have the right to adequate, nourishing food. Yet, one in six B.C. families worries about or lacks enough money for food and 1 in 20 Canadian children report eating no lunch on school days. Rich or poor, few Canadian children meet dietary recommendations for healthy foods like veggies, fruit, whole grains and foods rich in calcium and vitamin D.

There’s plenty of evidence that improved school-food programs could boost nutrition and learning, and ease strains on parents, especially during this time of rapidly rising food costs. School food can also support climate change goals by offering foods that are nourishing for growing bodies, local communities and the planet.

Three quarters of B.C. school districts already run meal programs, but with little reliable funding, they must often rely on volunteers, scrappy moms or non-profits to keep afloat. But most B.C. children still have no or very little regular access to school meals. After years of advocacy from groups like the Coalition for Healthy School Food, it’s time to put school food on the B.C. budget, to enact the government’s 2020 plan to ensure that students have the food and care they need.

We are researchers and moms who worked with school-food staff across Canada and the brilliant late professor, Sinikka Elliott, and we propose three core goals for school food that should be supported by B.C.’s next budget.

Centring children: Children form ideas about food and health through relationships with peers, family members and authority figures. What it means to eat well, be hungry or receive school food varies widely in different contexts as children, together with peers and adults, form these meanings together. If we want food programs to work for kids, we must look at food itself, but also at what school meals mean to kids. Children’s voices and experiences are surprisingly absent from discussions of school food. Without their input, food programs can flop, especially when kids opt out altogether. In our recent research in school lunchrooms, students talked a lot about how they felt cared for and supported by the important relationships built at lunchtime.

Funding an inclusive vision of health: Many agree that school food should be “healthy,” but it’s time to embrace broader ideas including Indigenous perspectives as described by Mary Kate Dennis and Tabitha Robin in their 2020 paper called “Healthy on our own terms,” which explain how well-being is “achieved through relationships to other people, to the land and creation, and to our ancestors in the spiritual realm” and not just defined as nutrient-rich foods that are physiologically nourishing. B.C. would do well to ensure resources are in place to meet evidence-based nutrition standards, but also to build capacity to teach about how food is grown, prepared and shared, including stewardship of land.

As Canada’s newest food guide reminds us, “healthy eating is more than the foods you eat. It is also about where, when, why and how you eat.” Some B.C. schools have already integrated food literacy and environmental health into school food and nutrition curricula. School gardens, cooking and composting activities can also serve as entry points for schools to build social justice and environmental education into school-food programming. But to reap these benefits, budgetary targets must explicitly acknowledge the value of food beyond its nutritive value, including the potential to connect with the community, support public provision of care for children and the land and water and workers who grow, transport, prepare and serve school foods.

Working toward justice, reconciliation and the right to food: School-food programming can advance justice, fairness and the right to food for all children. Justice cannot be achieved without all children having access to nourishing food, meal programs delivered without stigma, ensuring the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples and a fair distribution of economic benefits for B.C.’s workers and communities.

School-food programs have narrowed gaps in food insecurity and nutrition for low-income children in countries like the United States. But equity and stigma need to be considered when designing B.C.’s school-food programs. Paradoxically, trying to save costs by targeting meal programs only at more vulnerable students is found to weaken the potential benefits of future programs for those very students who may hesitate to opt in. The stakes are high for some parents to admit that they need help feeding their children. Indigenous, Black, racialized and other marginalized families may worry about losing custody of their children if authorities believe they cannot feed children adequately.

Funding school food can also support paid employment opportunities at a living wage, fair working conditions, autonomy and job satisfaction for school-lunch staff. In our research, children taught us that one of the most valuable parts of school-food programs was the trusted relationships and care fostered by lunch workers.

Moving forward

Our research supports the recommendations put forward by the B.C. chapter of the Coalition for Healthy School Food urging the B.C. government to “build on existing commitments to create more local school meal programs, by costing out and funding the first phase of a universal, healthy school food program for K-12 students in BC.” Combined with poverty-reduction strategies, school-food programs can lessen the blows felt by struggling families juggling rising food costs after the strains borne by families throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The province is accepting input into Budget 2023 until June 24. Visit the Coalition for Healthy School Food website for ways to support improved school-meal programs.

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