Nova Scotia

Advocates want federal government to adopt national school food program

Nourish Nova Scotia has been advocating for a national school food program for about a year. They're hopeful their voices were heard and that the new federal government will implement one.

'Kids just do better when they're well nourished'

Advocates in Nova Scotia are hoping the federal government will make healthy meals in schools a priority when Parliament opens next month. (CBC)

With Parliament set to open Dec. 5, a group of advocates is hoping healthy food is on the menu.

Nourish Nova Scotia, a charity that helps co-ordinate breakfast programs across the province, and the Ecology Action Centre launched the Speak Up For School Food campaign around a year ago.

Their goal is to have the federal government support a national school food program based on the new Canada Food Guide. Canada is the only G7 nation without such a program.

According to Margo Riebe-Butt, executive director of Nourish Nova Scotia, a national food program could look different depending on the province, but in Nova Scotia it would mostly come in the form of lunches and healthy snacks.

The majority of Nova Scotia schools already have breakfast programs that rely on various sources to sustain them.

'Kids just do better'

Riebe-Butt said a universal lunch program would be a big boost to all students.

"Kids just do better when they're well nourished and if we can ensure they have healthy food and that they actually eat it, enjoy it, and value it, then that's a big win," said Riebe-Butt.

"They're going to do better in their academics but they're also going to do better in their health."

Around 94 per cent of Nova Scotian schools have some form of breakfast program. (CBC)

All breakfast programs in the province operate on a universal model, meaning any student can get a breakfast regardless of circumstance.

Universality is key to ending the stigma of asking for help, according to school principal Paul Gartland.

Gartland is the principal at Sherwood Park Education Centre in Sydney. He takes shifts operating the breakfast program and said he sees students from all walks of life take part in the program.

"It could be for any number of reasons," said Gartland. "Everyone is welcome to come up and grab something. There's no stigma attached to coming to the breakfast program. It's more of a social event for the students."

Child poverty an increasing concern

Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, agrees. He believes a lunch program would be a good fit, particularly for tackling child poverty.

However, he is concerned with the level of support students need from their schools and teachers. Over the past several months, Wozney has been drawing attention to child poverty and wants to see the province do more.

Nova Scotia is one of two Canadian provinces that saw a spike in child poverty rates in 2017 according to Statistics Canada.

Wozney said teachers are already filling in the gaps left by poverty.

"It's becoming more common for teachers to effectively operate food and clothing banks in their classrooms or in their schools either on their own or in collaboration with other teachers and staff," said Wozney.

The school breakfast program is funded by the Department of Health and Wellness to the tune of $1.975 million a year. The remainder of the funding comes from sponsors, charities, or partnerships at individual schools or education centres.

Depending on the school, volunteers who implement the breakfast program could be teachers or other staff, parents, or sometimes student councils. 

Staffing would be required

If a lunch program were implemented, Riebe-Butt said it would need staffing since volunteers are already stretched to the limit. It would also require funding from all three levels of government, she said.

She said it would not only help students but could result in new employment opportunities.

There was some political interest from the federal parties throughout the last election.

Riebe-Butt said the Liberals had a national food program in their spring budget before the election, and the Green and New Democratic parties also had it in their platforms.

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