Would Canada benefit from a national school food program?


It's that time of year again when kids are off to school and parents are tasked with packing lunches. It can be a struggle to plan and pack healthy lunches on a daily basis for many reasons (e.g., convenient packaged foods available, cost, schedules, picky eating).

While thinking about healthy school lunches may be on the minds of many parents, this topic is also of interest to nutrition researchers.

A fellow colleague, Claire Tugault-Lafleur (PhD Candidate, U of BC), analyzed differences in dietary intake patterns between school hours and non-school hours by using data from the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS). This survey has data from over 4800 children between the ages of 6-17 and the findings of her study show that Canadian kids are not eating enough nutritious foods during school hours. In her study, an index of 11 key components of a healthy diet was used to examine all foods and drinks consumed between 9am-2pm. The average score was 53.4/100, with dark green and orange vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and milk and alternatives having the lowest scores. Data from the 2015 CCHS study have recently been released and Claire will be analyzing this data to see what has changed (or not) since the 2004 survey; there have been changes in school nutrition policies and guidelines in many provinces in the last decade.

Perhaps a national school food program could help with getting Canadian kids more access to healthy foods during school hours?

That is what Sasha McNicoll is lobbying for as part of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, organized by Food Secure Canada. The overall goal is to have healthy food accessible to children while at school and also create an environment where they can learn about nutrition and healthy foods. A recent UNICEF report ranked Canada 37/41 out of high-income countries related to access to nutritious foods for children. For many, including us, this is unacceptable. In fact, Canada is the only industrialized country that doesn't have a national school food program. There currently exists food programs here and there, but the idea would be to build off these programs in the development of a nation-wide program to be rolled out. Considering the more we learn about diet-related diseases and the negative health outcomes, doing our best to focus on instilling healthy habits in children will give them a better chance for optimal health outcomes later in life.

But, what should we do in the meantime? Here are our top 3 tips for packing healthier lunch boxes! 

School Lunch Tip #1: Snacks are Mini Meals! Snacks make up a third of the caloric intake for Canadian children, and eating behaviours established as kids last a lifetime. Think of snacks as mini meals. In a recent study, we found packaged cookies, fish crackers and granola bars are at the top of the snack food list. Unfortunately, while these packaged snacks are easy, they are often high in calories, sugar and salt. Stay away from snacks that come individually packaged as much as possible. Healthy snacks should include 2 different food groups: fruits, veggies, whole grains, protein and milk and alternatives. Apples slices and seeds, veggies with hummus, whole grain crackers and cheese, or fruit and yogurt make great snacks. Snacks can also be smaller portions of meals. Half a sandwich or a smaller portion of last night's leftovers provides a snack that is full of nutrition. 

School Lunch Tip #2: Get your Child Involved! Take the guess work out of what to make by involving your child. Research shows that when children are involved in preparing meals, they are more likely to eat them and try new foods!  Sit down with your child once a week to get their lunch ideas. While your child may be too small to make their own lunch, they can help put things together and pack their lunchbox. Taking your child grocery shopping is a great way to get them involved. Allow them to choose a new fruit or vegetable to try, or allow them to choose between two options. 

School Lunch Tip #3: Keep Kids Hydrated! The best drink for children is water. Kids can be irritable and sluggish even with slight dehydration. Fill up a water bottle in the morning and encourage your child to drink from it throughout the day. Milk is another great option as it contains calcium and vitamin D, protein and healthy fat to keep your child going all day long. If you choose an alternative to cow's milk (soy, almond or rice milk), make sure it is fortified with calcium and vitamin D. What about juice boxes you ask? Even 100% fruit juice boxes provide too much sugar for little ones. Juice does not contain the fibre of whole fruits and can cause cavities sitting on your child's teeth all day. Dietitians recommend limiting your child's intake of 100% fruit juice to 1/2 cup (or 4oz) per day. Sadly, most juice boxes are bigger than this! 

What do you think about a nation-wide school food program? How would you like to see it rolled out in schools across the country? What are your favourite healthy lunch box tips and tricks? Share your thoughts in the comment section below - we would love to hear from you!

M & K


Tugault-Lafleur et al (2017). Examining school-day dietary intakes among Canadian children. APNMhttps://doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2017-0125

Food Secure Canada (2017). Social innovation in food policy: National school food program needed: https://foodsecurecanada.org/resources-news/news-media/social-innovation-food-policy-national-school-food-program-needed

UNICEF Report Card 14: Child well-being in a sustainable world (2017): http://www.unicef.ca/en/unicef-report-card-14-child-well-being-sustainable-world