Rulers, calculators, homework, gym shoes — there are lots of things for parents to worry about as kids head back to school. But what if their kids' nutritious lunch wasn't a concern?

Seven out of 10 Manitobans support a national food program that would make sure all primary and secondary students have access to healthy meals, at no cost, when they are at school, a Probe Research poll sponsored by Food Matters Manitoba suggests.

"I think that people understand this issue. I think people know it's difficult in busy, hectic lives and with other barriers that people face," said Rob Moquin, a policy manager at Food Matters Manitoba.

"Ultimately we need to remember that food insecurity is a poverty issue and people can't afford, in many cases, to feed themselves and their families."

Advocates across the country, including Food Secure Canada and Coalition for Healthy School Food, have been pushing the federal government to invest in a cost-shared universal healthy school food program, so students can have daily access to healthy meals at school.

The program would offer guidelines, resources and funding to ensure that all schools, whether in provincial or First Nation jurisdiction, have access to healthy food at no cost to the student's family, Moquin said.

"We know that there is numerous research and evidence to show that access to healthy food and regular diets — breakfast in the morning and lunch — contribute to children's performance in school, their focus, their mental acuity. They just perform better in general," he said.

Research, published over the summer by the medical journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, showed that lunches Canadian children are taking from home are not as healthy as food provided at school.

A recent UNICEF report also ranked Canada 37th out of 41 countries on access to nutritious food for children. It said one in nine Canadian children under the age of 15 live in a food insecure household.

"That's 11.9 per cent of children in Manitoba and that's far too high," Moquin said.

The Manitoba poll explained to respondents that some experts say school food programs have been shown to improve the health and learning abilities of children, while others say a national school food program could have a $1-billion price tag. It then asked if and how much people would support a national school food program.

Women, young adults and people in lower-income households were the strongest supporters of a national school food program, the Manitoba poll suggests.

Eighty-three per cent of First Nations and Métis Manitobans responding to the poll supported a school food program, and more than half gave strong support.

Older Manitobans, particularly men, were less likely to support it.

The results show the momentum behind a national school food program is growing, Moquin said, adding it's time. Canada is the only country in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that doesn't have a school food and nutrition program, he said.

While the Child Nutrition Council of Manitoba does provide provincial funding for food programs in some schools, it meets only a fraction of students' needs, Moquin said. A national program would provide increased resources, clear guidelines and support from the federal government to deliver a more robust school food program, he said.

"I think the time is right. I think there are conversations right now around food policy for Canada."

The poll was conducted via telephone interviews with 1,000 Manitoba adults from June 6-18. The results are considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, with 95 per cent certainty.