Nova Scotia

Advocates urge province to push Ottawa on national school food program

The federal government announced its intention to develop a national school food program in the 2019 budget. Advocates say the need for such a program has only grown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

'We can absolutely say that COVID has made things worse,' says school food advocate

School food advocates in Nova Scotia are urging the province to put pressure on the federal government to develop a national school food program. (Connie Martin)

As COVID-19 heightens issues around food insecurity, advocates in Nova Scotia are urging the provincial government to put pressure on Ottawa to move forward with the national school food program discussed in the most recent budget.

Nourish Nova Scotia, a non-profit organization focused on creating healthy school environments, wrote an open letter to Premier Stephen McNeil earlier this month.

The organization has school programs focused on locally grown food. It also helps co-ordinate breakfast programs across the province, which are funded by the Department of Health and Wellness.

"When COVID hit and schools were closed, a lot of those children lost that mechanism for good nutrition," said Sara Kirk, a professor of health nutrition at Dalhousie University, who co-signed the letter.

Sara Kirk is a professor of health promotion at Dalhousie University. She co-signed the open letter to the province. (Sara Kirk)

While Nova Scotia has the third highest child poverty rate in Canada, and the highest in Atlantic Canada, it's a national issue.

Canada is the only G7 country that doesn't have a national school food program.

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"This is not something we can address alone as a province," Kirk said.

Federal commitment to develop program

The federal government laid out $134.4 million in funding to improve Canada's food policy in the 2019 budget.

The same document announced an intention to work with provinces and territories to create a national school food program, but there has been no movement on that pledge since.

The 2019 federal budget announced the government's intention to develop a national school food program, but no action has been taken. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Kirk said it's hard to say whether more action would have been taken to make that happen if the pandemic hadn't interfered.

"But I think we can absolutely say that COVID has made things worse," she said.

Food insecurity in Canada

A recent report from Statistics Canada showed that almost one in seven Canadians live in households where there was food insecurity in April. When the 2019 federal budget was released, that number was one in eight.

There was also a higher rate of food insecurity among households with children compared to those without.

School lunch programs often rely on fundraising and volunteers to stay afloat. (Bill Doucet)

"That's a really worrying statistic," Kirk said. "And I think it's something that really can lend urgency to doing something as part of the federal government's plan for recovery after COVID."

A national food program wouldn't just improve student health and productivity, Kirk said, it would have economic benefits, like supporting domestic agriculture and creating jobs for food producers and service workers.

"To me, it's a no-brainer," she said.

'Patchwork' programs

Right now, breakfast and lunch programs across Canada operate in a "patchwork fashion," according to Margo Riebe-Butt, executive director of Nourish Nova Scotia.

Without government funding, some school cafeterias in Nova Scotia struggle to provide healthy, nutritious food. School lunch programs often rely on fundraising and volunteers to stay afloat.

Margo Riebe-Butt said breakfast and lunch programs across Canada operate in a 'patchwork fashion.' (Zak Markan/CBC)

Riebe-Butt said she'd like to see funding for a national discussion on what a program would look like.

"There's no one cookie-cutter model that would fit every province and territory, or every community, within each region," she said.

No response from the province

The province hasn't responded to the letter, Riebe-Butt said, but she did receive an encouraging response from the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, thanking her for keeping the issue "on the radar."

"Now, more than ever, people have realized the value that food places on individual and societal health overall," Riebe-Butt said. "And we've got to start with kids."

The province had no one available for comment on Friday. A statement Tuesday attributed to Premier Stephen McNeil said the province's breakfast program is in 94 per cent of Nova Scotia's public schools, the highest percentage in the country.

During COVID-19, the province said school districts worked with local agencies to help students and their families get food, and a project with restaurants helped deliver more than 10,000 meals to students in need.