Health

Filling the nutrition needs for kids on summer holidays

Summer holidays for students brings an end to breakfast and lunch programs at school but a company and network of food banks across Canada are stepping in to fill kids' mouths and nutritional gaps.

Some Canadian children under age 5 score low on iron and vitamin D

For thousands of children, the end of classes can also mean the end of a healthy diet, CBC's Pauline Dakin reports 2:18

Summer holidays for students brings an end to breakfast and lunch programs at schools but a company and network of food banks across Canada are stepping in to fill kids' mouths and nutritional gaps.

As concerns about childhood obesity mount, malnutrition of Canadian children is another pressing problem.

Darlene MacLean runs after-school and summer camps at a Boys and Girls Club in Halifax and said summer can be tough for some kids.

"I think some of them might not eat as nutritionally as they would if they were involved in a breakfast program or a lunch program, so I think nutrition kind of goes by the wayside," said MacLean, executive director of the nonprofit program for children.

To make a dent, a charitable foundation makes and delivers healthy lunches to children at risk and hopes to expand this summer.

It's taken for granted that children are healthy and well nourished in developed countries. (Mike Derer/Associated Press)

"Last year we made 130,000 sandwiches over the summer, so sandwiches plus healthy snacks and drinks that go with them," said Tracey Durand, executive director of the Sodexo Foundation of Canada, the charitable arm of a food services company.

At commercial kitchens across the country at companies like Campbell’s, kitchen space and food is donated, volunteers pack the lunches and local food banks distribute the lunches throughout the summer in nine cities: Vancouver, Regina, Calgary, Winnipeg, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Oakville and Halifax.

Kids' nutritional deficiencies

Recognizing that nutrition is tied to learning, education and health, the foundation wants the nutritional value of the food to count and be enjoyed, Durand said.

Pediatrician Dr. Jonathon Maguire is also a scientist at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto who studies the nutrition and development of young children.

It's taken for granted that children are healthy and nourished so it often isn't checked, Maguire said.

When Maguire's team tested and tracked about 3,500 preschoolers in Toronto, they found about seven per cent had low iron scores. Iron deficiency has been associated with cognitive developmental delays, anemia and in extreme cases stroke — health issues that have lifelong implications.

"If a child is iron-deficient and they're under say two years of age, they're more likely to have problems with their cognitive development, their brain development," Maguire said. "They're more likely to have difficulty in school, they're more likely to have behavioural problems and they're more likely to grow up and get a lower paying job."

Undernutrition was identified in average Canadian families before school age, not only in lower socioeconomic groups, Maguire said. 

About 30 per cent of children under five had low vitamin D scores, based on the Canadian Pediatric Society's optimal level.

Toddlers' vitamin D was similar to infants and toddlers in Alaska and St. John's, the researchers found.

"The vitamin D status of toddlers in urban Canada may require specific attention," Maguire's team concluded earlier this year. 

Diane Swinamer is the executive director of Feed Nova Scotia, one of the food banks across the country involved in the Sodexo project. For the children who benefit from the program, the sandwiches, crunchy apples and lunches can go a long way, Swinamer said.

With files from CBC's Pauline Dakin