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Helping hungry students a key to improving schools in Canada

Photo by Jason Margolis.

School may be out for the summer, but for some food security advocates, the connections between education, poverty and nutrition are in session.

As a member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council (VFPC), I recently attended a council meeting on the topic of school food. The meeting discussed the ways in which Vancouver, as well as British Columbia and Canada, face serious challenges when it comes to ensuring that growing minds have access to high-quality, dignified and culturally appropriate nutrition. 

Panelists included Sarah Carten, a Social Planner at the City of Vancouver who works on the implementation of the Food Strategy, Matthew Kemshaw, Farm to School BC’s Vancouver Area Animator and a program manager with the Environmental Youth Alliance and the LifeCycles Project Society, Jessica Land, the Supervisor, Enhanced Services at the Vancouver Board of Education, Brent Mansfield, the Director of the BC Food Systems Network, and Laura Track, a lawyer with the BC Civil Liberties Association.

In Vancouver, there are elementary and high school students who go to school hungry each day. According to “Hungry students in BC public schools and the adequacy of school meal programs to support them”, a 2015 study conducted by the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) in collaboration with the Committee for Action on Social Justice, "Eight in ten teachers reported having students who come to school hungry, and having students who are without food for lunch or snacks." Despite this, only a third of teachers rated their school's meal programs as either “quite” or “very” adequate to meet the needs of all students requiring nutritional support.

Even when school meal programs are offered, eligible students may not sign up. According to the BCTF report, many of these programs still charge a fee. For some families, even $20 per month is too much. The stigma of approaching the school and asking for a fee waiver is often too embarrassing for families and students to face. Some of the burden has actually fallen to individual teachers, with 40% reporting that they have used their own money to buy snacks for hungry students, spending an average of $29 per month.

The VSB is aware of the struggles, and cannot solve them alone with current levels of funding. In late 2015, the City of Vancouver announced that it would provide $320,000 to the Vancouver School Board’s meals program and $80,000 to the Strathcona Community Centre’s meals program, which provides breakfasts to local families.

Unfortunately, this amount is not enough to reach all students in need. Investments in school meals currently fall to a patchwork of provincial, municipal and individual levels because Canada is one of the few industrialized countries that lacks a national school food program. This is an issue that the VFPC is working on as a member of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, given that such a program could easily be included in the national food policy the Prime Minister has mandated.

The potential exists for school food to be a source of education, nourishment and abundance, rather than an afterthought or a source of stigma. As the panelists discussed, food could be integrated as a universal part of school pedagogy, a chance to learn about everything from biology to chemistry to cultural traditions and social justice issues. Cooking skills and healthy eating could be a part of every student’s curriculum. Groups such as Vancouver’s School Food Network offer support to teachers for this. There are even opportunities within the school environment to show the value of food, such as building adequate school kitchen facilities and ensuring students have the time and space to eat lunch. School food should be a source of celebration.

It almost goes without saying that students need adequate nutrition in order to learn. It is inappropriate to expect students to get good grades, behave well and contribute to society when their basic needs are not being met. Yet, with the current patchwork school food system, that is all too often the case.

Food is too often an afterthought in our society, treated as a privilege rather than a right. Canada’s status as one of the few industrialized countries without a national school food program needs to change. Adequate nutrition has a profound effect on the physical and mental health of people of any age, especially growing children and adolescents.

In addition to feeding young bodies and minds, there is an opportunity to raise students with the knowledge and skills to make informed food choices that contribute to health of people, communities, and our environment.  We need a strong school food system to ensure that the next generation of Canadians will be equipped to flourish.

Written with input from Vicky Baker, Antonietta Gesualdi, and Tara Moreau.

VFPC meetings are open to the public. For more information, visit

Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and gardening contributor. She blogs about urban food gardening at

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