Commentary – Historical lessons for Canada’s emerging national school food policy: an opportunity to improve child health

Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention in Canada Journal

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Anthony Zhong, MAAuthor reference footnote 1Author reference footnote 2; Lillian Yin, RDAuthor reference footnote 3; Brianne O’Sullivan, MMASCAuthor reference footnote 4; Amberley T. Ruetz, PhDAuthor reference footnote 5

This article has been peer reviewed.

Author references

Anthony Zhong, Harvard Medical School, 25 Shattuck Street, Boston, MA 02115, United States; Email:

Suggested citation

Zhong A, Yin L, O’Sullivan B, Ruetz AT. Historical lessons for Canada’s emerging national school food policy: an opportunity to improve child health. Health Promot Chronic Dis Prev Can. 2023;43(9):421-5.

Keywords: nutrition, students, school meal programs, Indigenous populations, immigrants, inclusion


  • School meals are one of the most successful drivers of improved health and education.
  • In 2021, the Canadian federal government committed $1 billion over 5 years to develop a national school food policy and work towards a national school nutritious meal program.
  • Canadian policy makers should learn from the experiences of other countries, including the United States’ National School Lunch Program.
  • We propose 3 priority areas to maximize health improvements: (1) resisting corporatization and prioritizing health; (2) preventing stigma through universal access; and (3) ensuring cultural inclusion and appropriateness.


Canada lags behind most high-income countries in child nutrition.Footnote 1 Less than one-third of children in Canada consume the recommended daily servings of vegetables and fruit.Footnote 2 They also consume five times more sugar than recommended by the national guidelines and get more than half of their calories from ultra-processed foods.Footnote 3Footnote 4 Overall, Canadians are the second largest consumers of ultra-processed foods and beverages in the world.Footnote 5 Poor diet has been linked with nutritional deficiencies and the development of chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.Footnote 6

Poor access to nutrition is also associated with worse learning outcomes, contributing to broader social inequities as an upstream determinant of health.Footnote 7Footnote 8 School meal programs can address these challenges by encouraging healthy eating behaviours and food–body relationships as well as the development of lifelong nutrition literacy.Footnote 9Footnote 10 Internationally, school meals have been shown to be one of the most successful drivers of improved health, education and even economic growth, with the equivalent of a $3 to $10 return on every dollar invested.Footnote 11

Despite these potential benefits, Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program.Footnote 12 Following the Government of Canada’s historic—but unfunded—commitment to develop a national school food program in the 2019 Budget, the Liberal Party recommitted to school food in its 2021 election platform by stating it would spend $1 billion over 5 years to “develop a National School Food Policy and work towards a national school nutritious meal program.”Footnote 13,p.7 As Canadian policy makers develop a framework for such a program, they should consider the experiences of other countries.

The development and evolution of school meal programs in the United States (US) could offer Canada a series of lessons given the countries’ geographical proximity and shared challenges with unhealthful food environments and persistent nutritional inequalities.Footnote 14Footnote 15 In 1946, the US established the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which now feeds approximately 30 million children per year.Footnote 16 Although the NSLP has been successful in reducing child hunger in school environments, it has historically failed to meet minimum nutrition needs and perpetuated stigma and social inequalities.Footnote 17

This commentary will draw on historical lessons from the NSLP and propose three priority areas to prevent unintended consequences and ensure a sustainable program in the Canadian context: (1) resisting corporatization and prioritizing health; (2) preventing stigma through universal access; and (3) ensuring cultural inclusion and appropriateness.

Priority 1: Resisting corporatization and prioritizing health

The primary intention of a national school meal program should be to ensure equitable access to nutritious food and to support the health and well-being of school-aged children. To achieve this, child health must be prioritized and, to the greatest extent possible, corporate interests curbed.

In the US, discourse on the need for school meal programs began as early as the mid-1800s, although it was not until the Great Depression that a nationwide school meal program emerged.Footnote 18 In 1933, the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation was established to address the twin crises of plummeting crop prices and soaring child hunger by redistributing agricultural surpluses to schools. The program was popular among agriculturalists and child welfare advocates, and was made into a permanent fixture of the school system with the National School Lunch Act of 1946.

While the program was considered a win-win for both children and farmers, it inextricably linked health with agricultural interests and paved the way for a program that primarily sought to “dump” surplus commodities, such as wheat and dairy products, rather than provide optimally nutritious meals to hungry children. These tensions are clear from the Congressional hearings that preceded the NSLP, such as the following exchangeFootnote 19,p.33-34 between Representative Murray, a Republican from Wisconsin, and Representative Cooley, a Democrat from North Carolina.

To my mind, I don’t see where we are going to do much on the surplus problem. I was just wondering how far we can go down that road, Mr. Chairman, and still keep to our main objective, which is to see that the children of this country, regardless of their incomes, have at least the income to get a lunch. [Murray]

Is that the objective? The main objective, as I understand it, is to dispose of surplus agricultural commodities, and the feeding of the school children is just collateral to that main objective… [Cooley]

To this day, corporate interests remain deeply embedded within the NSLP and serve as a barrier to prioritizing children’s health. This focus on business has resulted in bizarre policies, such as changes to the NSLP’s nutrition standards that classified ketchup and pizza sauce as vegetables to reduce program expenses.Footnote 20 In 1990, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) commissioned a comprehensive review of the NSLP; this found that only 1% of schools complied with the NSLP’s guidelines for fat.Footnote 21 A similar study in 2015 found that NSLP meals still did not meet the agency’s nutrition standards.Footnote 22 This has had troubling implications for child health, with one US study finding frequent school lunch consumption to be a greater risk factor for obesity than spending 2 or more hours a day watching television.Footnote 23

Although a national school meal program offers opportunities for economic growth through regional food production and job creation, experiences in the US show that policy makers must draw clear boundaries so that agricultural and corporate interests remain secondary to child health.Footnote 24Footnote 25 In fact, agenda distortion, reciprocity and corporate capture are just a few of the perils of private partnerships.Footnote 26Footnote 27

In December 2021, the federal government tasked the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development with developing the national school food policy and meal program, given their mandates over Canada’s food system and social safety programs.Footnote 28 While it is important to engage a variety of stakeholders, Canada must remain vigilant about the commercial determinants of health, defined as “the systems, practices and pathways through which commercial actors drive health and equity.”Footnote 29,p.1195 More specifically, it must protect students from corporate lobbying and the promotion of unhealthful products, especially as the historical record demonstrates how business interests can become insurmountable once ingrained.Footnote 30Footnote 31

Priority 2: Preventing stigma through universal access

Social stigma is often underestimated as a threat to public health, despite the fact that it can undermine individual well-being and exacerbate population health inequities by producing discrimination and reluctance to seek help.Footnote 32Footnote 33 Policy makers must carefully consider how school meal programs are framed and financed to protect students in under-resourced communities from the shame, psychological distress and reduced health-seeking behaviours that can arise from participating in stigmatizing programs for the “poor” or “needy.”

Although the US National School Lunch Act marked a major milestone in the development of America’s social safety net, its reach in 1946 was significantly limited, especially for the most vulnerable communities. While the NSLP required that impoverished children receive free lunches, Congress did not initially pass any enforcement mechanisms or appropriate funds to achieve these goals.Footnote 34 The United States Department of Agriculture also did nothing to ensure that the program was accessible to Black schools in racially segregated districts.Footnote 34 As a result, most schools simply ignored the free lunch mandate and the NSLP largely remained a program for those that could afford to pay.

Hoping to close this gap, Congress passed the Child Nutrition Act in 1966, which expanded the NSLP and mandated that all participating schools provide free meals to children experiencing poverty. However, this well-intentioned rebranding of the NSLP as an “anti-poverty” program was equally harmful, as it stigmatized participation. Many families began to pull their children from the program so as not to be labelled “needy,” “low-income” or “at risk.” Between 1970 and 1973, an estimated one million paying students dropped out of the NSLP.Footnote 34

By the middle of the 1970s, few children who had any choice ate school lunches, cutting off an important revenue stream. Faced with a massive budget shortfall, policy makers opened the NSLP to industrial food service companies and fast-food companies like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, hoping they would keep the program afloat by reducing unit costs while enticing paying students back into the program with branded and highly processed foods.Footnote 34 American policy makers have since recognized the drawbacks of this poverty-based, multitiered system and have shifted, in the past decade, towards universal free meals by establishing Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) programs.Footnote 35

These historical vignettes highlight the pitfalls of means-tested social programs and demonstrate how social stigma can undermine school meal programs, particularly when there is a clear divide between those receiving free and paid meals. Means-tested programs not only create feelings of shame among participants, undermining voluntary participation and psychological safety, they warp incentives away from nutrition towards the recruitment of paying “customers” while creating administrative costs and inefficiencies.Footnote 36Footnote 37 As such, Canada’s policies should consider a model based on universal access (i.e. providing school meals at no cost to all children who choose to participate).

In addition, school meals should not replace other income-based solutions that address the underlying social inequalities that result in household food insecurity and differences in healthy eating, obesity and chronic disease outcomes.Footnote 15 Like our health and education systems, the national school meal program should be thought of as a universal public service to improve well-being rather than as a narrow anti-poverty program or a potential revenue stream.Footnote 38

Priority 3: Ensuring cultural inclusion and appropriateness

It is important that policy makers consider how culturally diverse and appropriate foodways will be incorporated into the national school food policy to take into account the heterogeneity of Indigenous and immigrant communities—who make up nearly a quarter of the population in Canada.

Given the strong relationship between food and identity, school meal programs have historically been used as part of broader assimilation efforts to coerce racialized communities into adopting Anglo-American tastes.Footnote 34 In American Indian boarding schools well into the 20th century, Indigenous students were forbidden from practising their food traditions in order to “kill the Indian, save the man.”Footnote 39Footnote 40 Targeted efforts were also made to assimilate immigrant children, with one early Americanization textbook noting, “One’s very food affects his Americanism. What kind of American consciousness can grow in the atmosphere of sauerkraut and Limburger cheese?”Footnote 41 Perhaps most dramatically, the US National Defence Advisory Commission established the Committee on Food Habits in 1940, which sought to imbue immigrants with common food habits, believing “the systematic exploitation of such cultural differences is part of the enemy tactic of war.”Footnote 34 In the following decade, the committee recommended that school lunch menus “transform diverse ethnic food cultures into a national identity” and that school cafeteria tables be assigned a “host” and “hostess” to lead the meal according to Anglo-American social norms.Footnote 42

Unsurprisingly, these efforts to impose cultural conformity had serious repercussions for the mental well-being and participation of students. Reflecting on her experience with school food in 1949, one second-generation Russian-Jewish immigrant lamented, “What came across was the idea that your home environment was no good and you had to make it different.”Footnote 36 Today, innovative pilot programs have emerged across the US to provide culturally diverse meals. For example, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s “farm-to-school” program provides locally sourced beef and buffalo to the five schools in its South Dakota reservation.Footnote 43 Many similar programs have since emerged that recognize the value of Indigenous sustainable food practices; however, in the absence of a national strategy, these efforts largely remain a patchwork.Footnote 43

Benefiting from historical retrospection, policy makers should recognize that the lack of culturally appropriate foods in school meal programs can contribute to cultural erasure and limit uptake within racialized communities. Canada should be especially sensitive to these lessons given its own history of assimilationist immigration policies and the cultural genocide inflicted upon First Nations, Métis and Inuit children in residential and day schools.Footnote 44Footnote 45Footnote 46 As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission makes clear, to deny one’s food is to deny one’s culture.Footnote 47 Indigenous and immigrant knowledge keepers must therefore be equal partners at every step of the program planning, implementation and evaluation processes, with special efforts to protect and revitalize Indigenous foodways. Canada’s emerging school food policy must further consider how it will meaningfully scale up the provision of culturally appropriate foods—whether through funding, local partnerships or farm-to-school activities—so that the burden of ensuring cultural inclusion does not fall solely on already overstretched schools.


A national school meal program is about much more than just food. Beyond serving as a social safety net, it offers opportunities to promote health equity, nutrition literacy and lifelong healthy eating habits. In addition, such a program can foster school environments that celebrate Canada’s cultural diversity. Still, while the theoretical benefits of school meals are plentiful, the practical implementation of the program will be most consequential. Like their American counterparts, Canadian policy makers will inevitably face organizational and administrative dilemmas that determine whether the program strengthens or undermines students’ physical and mental health. If child health is to be prioritized, Canadian policy makers must implement conflict of interest safeguards to prevent the food industry from marketing unhealthful products to students, increase funding across all levels of government to sustain a program built upon universal access, and scale up policies that enable culturally important practices like the harvesting of traditional foods to ensure cultural inclusion and appropriateness.Footnote 48


We thank Dr. Rebecca Lemov for her thoughtful comments.

Authors’ contributions and statement

AZ: Conceptualization, Writing – Original Draft

LY: Writing – Original Draft

BO: Writing – Original Draft

ATR: Supervision, Writing – Review & Editing

The content and views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of Canada.

Conflicts of interests


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