Nutrition report card gives Alberta a C grade — again

For the fourth year in a row, Alberta has received a C grade on a report card that evaluates food environments and nutrition policies for young people.

Report recommends mandatory healthy food policies for schools and rec centres

Once again, food policy experts have given Alberta a barely passing grade on an annual report card evaluating children's food environments. (Ekaterina Markelo/Shutterstock)

For the fourth year in a row, Alberta has received a C grade on a report card that evaluates food environments and nutrition policies for young people.

The sixth annual report card, released this week, grades the province's score across five environments: physical, communication, economic, social and political. 

Rather than blame parents or children for their individual choices, the report card explores a range of influences on children's eating habits, from the availability of healthy food in schools to economic incentives for companies selling nutritious options.

The grades are based on the findings of an expert working group of 14 academics and NGO representatives. These experts graded Alberta's performance on 40 indicators. 

"Right across the board we're seeing issues," Kim Raine said in a recent interview with Nancy Carlson, CBC Edmonton's News at 6 host.

Raine, a professor of public health at the University of Alberta, was the report card's principal investigator.

Alberta received A grades in some areas — for example, the province has an evidence-based rating system for food served to children —  but overall, the report found much room for improvement.

The experts gave Alberta an F for failing to reduce household food insecurity and failing to restrict marketing unhealthy foods to children.

U of A professor Kim Raine says school districts and municipalities have more work to do to ensure they are creating healthy food environments for young people. (Nancy Carlson/CBC)

Report based on pre-pandemic data

The already-substandard report card could have been worse, had the data for it been collected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Raine said evidence suggests food insecurity has increased in recent months. She said the pandemic likely exacerbated existing vulnerabilities and eliminated some supports, like the province's school nutrition program.

That program, which provides free daily meals to thousands of kids in low-income schools, came to a halt when schools shut down. Agencies and volunteers worked to deliver food to children who relied on these meals, but Raine said the overall impact of those efforts is unknown.

"We just don't know whether or not all of the kids who would have received those meals in school would have had access to them through the community agencies," she said.

How to boost Alberta's grades

The report calls for schools, child care centres and public buildings to adopt and follow healthy food policies like the Alberta Nutrition Guidelines for Children and Youth.

Alberta has had school nutrition guidelines for more than a decade, but they are voluntary. 

"Some school districts have chosen to make them mandatory, but many have not," Raine said.

The report also calls for making food skills courses mandatory for junior high school students and changing municipal zoning policies to decrease the availability of unhealthy food vendors within 500 metres of schools.

Raine said improving Alberta's grades is important because nutrition habits form in childhood and become a key determinant of health.

Poor diet, she added, translates into higher health care costs down the road.

With files from Nancy Carlson