Canada is not doing well compared with other high-income countries at providing nutritious food to children, say food security advocates and parents calling for a national school food program.

In a UNICEF report published this summer, Canada ranked 37th out of 41 countries on access to nutritious food for children, just below the United States and higher than Bulgaria.

Sasha McNicoll is co-ordinator at the Coalition for Healthy School Food, organized by the advocacy group Food Secure Canada.

McNicoll said Canada needs to improve its standing because schoolchildren are being harmed in these areas:

  • Health — Children tend to eat more unhealthy than healthy foods.
  • Education —  Children who go to school without eating a nutritious breakfast are less likely to succeed in school, and face bullying, anxiety and depression, impacting their mental health.

"What we'd like to see is a national school food program where all kids from across the country know that they can go to school and get access to healthy food and eat it in an environment that teaches them about what healthy food means and about nutrition," McNicoll said.

Sasha McNicoll

School meals should be part of the federal government's national food policy, says Sasha McNicoll, co-ordinator at the Coalition for Healthy School Food. (CBC)

Canada has just a patchwork of programs for school food programs, with funding coming from provincial and territorial governments, municipal governments and charities.

To that end, Food Secure Canada is seeking an investment by the federal government in a cost-shared universal healthy school food program, so students can have daily access to healthy meals at school. The coalition is presenting its position to Ottawa's consultations being held across Canada to help develop a national food policy.

McNicoll points to emerging research, which suggests the lunches children are bringing from home are not as healthy as the foods they're eating in school programs. 

Zoe Traiforos observed lunch hour at her family's neighbourhood school in Toronto and said it was akin to "herding cattle," with high noise levels and hordes of children running down the hall to the gymnasium to eat.

Traiforos started a school nutrition committee to try to bring more order to lunch periods in the hopes children will eat better. She thinks proper supervision of school lunches would help, but wouldn't solve the problem.

"It's been explained to me, 'Well sure, we can have more supervision at lunch but then we'd have to take away books from the library.' It's like an either/or. It's not a priority."

Traiforos said other parents are thankful for the committee, but many are too busy to participate.

​​Making school food programs a bigger priority could help, Food Secure Canada says. It adds that Canada is the only industrialized country without a national school meal program.

Other countries take different approaches.

  • In Japan, children serve each other at school.
  • In Finland's national food school program, children are fed a balanced, healthy meal every day while sitting around a table in a communal way, as a supervisor teaches them about nutrition, healthy eating and about table manners.
  • In Brazil, school food programs are mandated to procure 30 per cent of the food they purchase from small-scale local farmers.

By expanding current programs, Food Secure Canada hopes to reach more children. The group is working with a coalition of health groups, such as Heart and Stroke, to advocate for school meals to be part of the national food policy that Ottawa hopes to have ready next year

With files from CBC's Vik Adhopia