Discussion paper - Consultation on building a pan-Canadian school food policy

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Introduction: Building a pan-Canadian school food policy

Too many children at school are trying to learn on empty stomachs. Too many families in Canada are not able to reliably access sufficient amounts of nutritious food. 

Domestic and international evidence shows that school meal programs act as social equalizers. They are also part of a comprehensive approach to equity and support for children and their families.

This is why we are taking steps to build a pan-Canadian school food policy together with provincial/territorial governments, Indigenous partners and stakeholders. The Policy will seek to guide the expansion of school meal programming based on common principles and objectives. It will also seek to set a foundation for greater collaboration, coordination and investment, so that more children have access to nutritious food in school.

We need your input

A school food policy needs to:

We are engaging directly with Indigenous partners, provinces and territories. Many of them are already involved in funding and/or providing school meal programs. Engagement will explore how to expand and enhance these efforts.

We recognize that First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples have unique rights and priorities. That is why we are engaging with Indigenous partners to help ensure that the school food policy reflects the unique and diverse needs of Indigenous children. 

We also want to hear directly from people in Canada on:

We are seeking direct input from Canadians through an online questionnaire. The questionnaire takes approximately 10 to 15 minutes to complete.

We are also planning to discuss with stakeholder groups from diverse perspectives, including:

Our engagement will also include children. This will ensure that their voices and views are at the center of the policies and programs that affect them.

School meal programs in Canada

School meal programs exist in some form in all provinces and territories and in many Indigenous communities. However, school meal programs only reach around 21% of school-age children.

Existing school meal programs also vary in:

In addition to funding from provincial and territorial governments, most programs heavily rely on:

Recent data indicate that participation in school food programs range from 5% of students in Alberta to 83% of students in Yukon.

The Government of Canada has provided some funding to support school food initiatives in the past. For example:

Poverty and food insecurity in Canada

In 2018, Canada introduced Opportunity for All—Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy. The Strategy uses food insecurity as an indicator of poverty. It also defines food insecurity as “households that do not have enough money to purchase or access a sufficient amount and variety of food to live a healthy lifestyle.”

Based on the 2020 Canadian Income Survey and the 2021 PROOF report “Household Food Insecurity in Canada”, 15.9% of households in the 10 provinces experienced some level of food insecurity in the past year. This amounts to 5.8 million people, including almost 1.4 million children under the age of 18. According to the 2018 Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children Survey, up to 1 in 5 young people report going to school or bed hungry at least sometimes because there is not enough food at home. 

Food insecurity is especially high in the North. As of 2020, food insecurity was highest in Nunavut (with 49.5% experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity). Nunavut is followed by the Northwest Territories and the Yukon (with 20.4% and 21.2% experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity, respectively).

Rates of food insecurity are also especially high among:

According to the 2021 First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study by the Assembly of First Nations, University of Ottawa and Université de Montréal, approximately 50% of First Nations households “have difficulty putting enough food on the table.” Those with children experience this difficulty to an even higher degree. According to the 2017 Aboriginal Peoples Survey, 76% of Inuit in Inuit Nunangat aged 15 and over experienced some form of food insecurity.

Nutrition among children in Canada

A healthy diet throughout childhood is important for lifelong good health, well-being and socio-economic outcomes. However, national data indicates that the diets of children and youth in Canada often do not meet the Canada Food Guide recommendations. Significant diet disparities exist, particularly for Indigenous and Black children and children from low-income families, who face additional barriers to accessing nutritious food.

According to the 2017 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS), only 27.4% of youth report consuming at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. The 2015 CCHS found that over 50% of the total energy intake of children and youth comes from ultra-processed foods.

Discussion themes for a pan-Canadian policy based on shared objectives

In early conversations, experts and stakeholders have identified several possible guiding objectives for a school food policy. We are just beginning to engage with Indigenous partners so these objectives do not yet reflect First Nations, Inuit and Métis perspectives.

In the pan-Canadian school food online questionnaire, you will have the opportunity to share your thoughts on potential objectives.

A school food policy could:

A. Improve access to school food and mitigate financial barriers

According to experts and stakeholders, a pan-Canadian school food policy could help build a future where all children can enjoy nutritious and culturally relevant food at school.

In the short term, the focus could be on expanding the reach of existing school meal programs and developing new school meal programs. These short-term actions could focus on children who need school food the most. In the longer-term, the aim could be to improve access and progressively reach all children in Canada over time.

This could include measures to ensure that school meal programs are affordable to families so that cost is not a barrier. There are many ways to achieve this, including meals that are free or low cost for everyone, or “pay-what-you-can” or sliding-scale models, where the cost to families varies based on their ability to pay. However, experts have emphasized the importance of ensuring that school meals are ‘free at the point of participation’, when students receive their meals. 

B. Prevent stigma

Experts have noted that stigmatization can negatively impact outcomes and lead to lower school meal programming uptake. They emphasized that when programming is widely available within a classroom, grade or school, participants are less likely to experience stigma.

Therefore, programming (even if targeted) should ensure that students do not feel singled out on the basis of their family’s financial situation. Nor should they feel ashamed of “needing” to use the school meal program.  By removing stigma, we can increase participation and help those who need it most.

C. Enhance nutrition and promote lifelong healthy practices

Experts have noted that school meals should be filling and nutritious to support children throughout their day of learning. This means that meals include a variety of nutritious foods that align with Canada's Food Guide and jurisdictional nutrition standards. They also need to be substantial enough so that children get the nutrition they need. Stakeholders have also noted that meals should be appealing to children.     

School meal programs can also help promote a healthy relationship with food and an understanding of health principles as they relate to food. Research shows that exposure to a variety of foods in childhood can promote lifelong healthy eating practices. Some school meal programs also incorporate food literacy and skills education. This can include learning about how food, health and the environment are interconnected. It can also include learning about food preparation, food systems, and what constitutes a healthy diet.

D. Ensure a flexible approach that leaves room for local adaptation

The needs of children in Canada are highly diverse. Schools and communities also vary in terms of their current school food initiatives and infrastructure. This means that what they will need to expand or develop new programming will vary. For example, expanding or developing new school meal programming in a dense urban centre will present different challenges than in a remote community.

There are also many current and successful school meal programs in operation, each with their own ways of doing things, reflecting local realities.

For these reasons, experts and stakeholders recommend avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach for a shared school food vision in Canada. The unique circumstances of Indigenous children require particular consideration. The policy should be flexible enough to encourage programming that reflects local community and cultural contexts.

E. Offer culturally appropriate programming that is mindful of dietary requirements

Experts and stakeholders also note the importance of culturally adapted food in school meal programs. Depending on the community context, this could include offering culturally relevant meals or connections to traditional food systems. It could also include offering meals that meet religious and other dietary requirements, like country food, kosher, halal, and vegetarian meal choices, among others. Cultures and food traditions can also influence how and when to eat, where food is procured from, and food preparation. School meal programs can provide an opportunity for students to strengthen their ties to their own culture and community. Programs can also provide an opportunity for students to learn about other cultures.

It is also important to consider First Nations control of education and programming in First Nations schools. This will ensure the establishment of culturally appropriate First Nations School Food programs for First Nations children. It will also help ensure that these programs will be based on First Nations local criteria and unique needs.

F. Ensure accountability and governance

School food programs could have safeguards against marketing branded or highly processed foods and beverages to children. Collecting and sharing data on school meal programs across Canada should also be a key part of a school food policy. This data will help measure progress on the expanded access to school food. It could also create communities of practice to enhance coordination, share best practices and develop evidence-informed programming.

G. Supporting local and sustainable food systems and economies

Experts and stakeholders note that school meal programs could create connections to local food systems and maximise local and sustainably produced food. They also note that programs could increase opportunities to reclaim culturally important practices like the harvesting of traditional country foods in Indigenous communities. This could create jobs and economic opportunities for Canadian farmers and local food producers while also minimizing environmental impacts. Some stakeholders have suggested setting targets for local/Canadian food sourcing to ensure that school meals offer interlinked social, environmental, and economic benefits.

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