School nutrition programs failing Canadian children

A policy professor says school nutrition programs have failed to address child hunger, resulting in "food insecurity," a phenomenon stemming from not knowing where one's next meal will come from.

Are we properly addressing issues surrounding child hunger?

Students take part in a nutrition program at a school in Toronto. Programs such as this one have not addressed child hunger, according to Dr. Lynn McIntyre, a professor at the University of Calgary. (Breakfast for Learning handout/Canadian Press)

Over the past decade or so, school-based nutrition programs have blossomed across the country, especially as concerns have risen regarding childhood obesity and the important role a healthy diet plays in the lives of children and teenagers. But as these programs have proliferated, their original intent - to combat issues of child hunger - has fallen to the wayside.

In an article for the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Dr. Lynn McIntyre, a professor at the University of Calgary, said these nutrition programs have failed to address child hunger as a result of "food insecurity," a phenomenon stemming from not knowing where one's next meal will come from. Although many Canadians would identify food insecurity as a major problem in developing countries, McIntyre says the problem is also applicable to Canada — the affected families just don't talk about it.

Dr. McIntyre spoke to CBC News about the ongoing issues surrounding food insecurity in Canadian schools.

CBC News: What is food insecurity?

Lynn McIntyre: It is basically a lack of access to food due to financial constraints. It's usually considered a poverty-related lack of access to the food one would like to have and one needs to have.

How is food insecurity defined in regards to a developed country like Canada? 

The western model of food insecurity has basically four dimensions. It does have the dimension of the quantity of food being reduced, the absolute depravation of hunger. But it also includes the change in the quality of food, so that is a poor-quality diet that could lead to malnutrition due to a deficiency of certain vitamins or minerals. Then there is the psychological aspect of food insecurity, which is around the anxiety of not having enough food, worrying about where your next meal is coming from. The last is sort of a social construction where you have to do things in order to acquire food that are socially demeaning, such as lining up for food banks.

With food insecurity problems in a more global setting, they're mostly related to the quality and quantity of food and there has been less attention to the psychological or social impacts related to not having access to food.

What sort of mental effect does food insecurity have on children?

I've been incredibly impressed at how by age six, children are able to articulate a commentary on being a welfare baby and how they have social class understanding. There's no fooling even a six-year-old on who's a rich kid and who's a poor kid. Beyond that, it gets even more dramatic as far as social class distinction. The poor kids always know that they are different.

You mention in your report that voluntary school food programs have addressed issues of food insecurity. How did those programs initially intend to confront this problem?

Because we understand the extraordinary relationship between poverty and food insecurity and because there is a general Canadian concern around child poverty, then the assumption was that children living in poverty would be food insecure and that they in fact would have that kind of severe aspect of food insecurity, which is more associated with hunger or a lack of food. So the leap was therefore, if there's child poverty, there's child hunger and we should feed hungry children. But that assumption says that a food-insecure household doesn't take extraordinary measures to make sure the children are fed, with a consequence to older siblings and, most importantly, the mother. This means that child hunger, the extreme point of food insecurity, is actually very rare in Canada.

This association, that food insecurity leads to child hunger, hasn't really been born out. In fact, it's worked to the opposite, whereby if a child comes to school hungry, the assumption is of parental neglect. That is what's challenging us when it comes to studying food insecurity. We really have to consider the household phenomenon that children are protected and that the way you reduce food insecurity is by poverty alleviation, the change in the cost of staples for a healthy diet or the reduction of other expenses such as housing.

If those programs really haven't addressed the core issue, what accounts for their continued implementation?

Because they're wonderful and the sense that if you build it, they will come. What seems to have happened is that organizers recognized early on that the programs were stigmatizing and that the most vulnerable child wouldn't show up because they didn't want to be picked on as a "welfare baby." So they started to do things to make them more universal as a before-school activity so that all children are welcome, no questions asked. This is when the movement was adapted more towards the middle class, as has been the case with many social programs in Canada. Once the programs began to flourish, they began addressing other concerns such as healthy eating, socialization and the introduction of exotic foods and everybody loves them—the kids are happy and it's a great way to start the day. But in the process, we've completely forgotten that the original intent of these programs was to feed children who were hungry.

What might be done to improve these programs? 

I'm not sure that these programs are necessary at all for alleviating food insecurity. My main issue is that while food security surrounds everybody trying to have a healthy diet, complete with organic, locally grown food, that movement has completely overwhelmed the food insecurity movement, which deals with the ability to access food with financial means, the antipoverty story. These programs, therefore, are not contributing to food insecurity reduction, only an antipoverty strategy that is inclusive of policies surrounding housing, employment, childcare, and the protection of staples, will be effective. If these ones want to run around and do things, my main claim is that they cannot at any way be construed as reducing food insecurity in Canada, which remains a very serious problem.

You mention in your report that little has changed in 10 years, in terms of how families cope with food insecurity. Why is that?

I thought that was a very interesting phenomenon. The two things I was able to point out are that the types of families that are food insecure are very similar over a decade and in that decade where we've had a huge exponential growth in food banks, community gardens and school meal programs, these families report no greater access to these programs than they did 10 years ago. In both cases, access to a school meal program was what we call unreportable because it was too rare an event. To me, food insecurity is dealt with as a private manner in one's household and the struggle goes on there, as we know that only a quarter of these families would go to a food bank. We've got this kind of culture that encourages people to deal with things at home and despite this exponential growth in the availability of services, the uptake of those programs has not been with those for whom they were originally intended.

What sorts of policy changes need to be implemented to properly address food insecurity?

I've been a proponent of a guaranteed annual income as a way of creating some ability for families to afford food and as a way to stabilize our other support systems, which can be quite chaotic.

I also think that as we have seen food price crises around the world, the inflation of food prices has increased at a rate well beyond the inflation of other costs of living. I am calling for food-staple pricing protection for the poor, especially when it comes to milk, one of the basic food groups that has become unaffordable and is also very much controlled and regulated, meaning it would not be difficult to stabilize the price.

We also need to continue to look at our housing strategies, because the discretionary money that is left over from all the household expenses is all that's left for food. All studies have shown that rental income and energy prices associated with utilities are a great burden.

It is about a comprehensive policy of social protection. While our income support system is working to combat food insecurity in some cases, the problem has now shifted to those who work to earn a living. There are some very important issues emerging now with our working poor, such as the precariousness of employment, the notion of employment protection and eligibility for employment insurance. This means the vast majority of those who are food insecure in Canada are those whose income is almost exclusively from earnings and salary, and not from income support.