NDP government to roll out lunch program “sooner rather than later,” minister says
A research group is calling on the province to create a universal school food program to improve access to and education around healthy food in schools.
The call follows a recent survey of school principals that revealed, among other things, that 62 per cent of teachers keep a supply of emergency food on hand to feed hungry students in their classes.
“Teachers are taking on this role that’s probably not in their job description, but they’re really concerned about the kids, so they have a little stash in their desk or a food cupboard somewhere, and that’s how they’re dealing with these kids,” said Dr. Kim Raine of the Alberta Policy Coalition for Chronic Disease Prevention, which operates within the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta.
Conducted during the 2014/15 school year and entitled Principals’ Perceptions of the School Food Environment in Alberta, the survey garnered responses from 363 principals from a variety of schools across Alberta. The research was an effort to learn what schools are doing to promote healthy food choices and what kind of support they receive to help fund such efforts, Raine said.
While 76 per cent of schools have some sort of policy aimed at promoting healthy food choices, only 31 per cent mandate the Alberta Nutrition Guidelines for Children and Youth that were developed in 2008. Even more telling for Raine is the finding that less than half of schools receive ongoing funding for their food initiatives.
“It’s more or less an ad hoc or voluntary nature to many of the programs that are being offered, so many of the kids across the province aren’t benefiting,” she said.
Researchers have known for a long time that children don’t learn well when they’re hungry, she said. Statistics also show that one in six Alberta children come from households that can’t afford to put healthy food on the table.
“Despite knowing this for a long time, we’re still dealing with it in this very charitable, volunteer model,” Raine said. “I think it’s time that we say we need to do something more systemic around addressing this.”
The research group is advocating for a universal food strategy that would involve making healthy and sustainable food available and affordable to all Alberta students and providing them with education and skills to grow and prepare food. Such a strategy would also support relationships with local producers and the development of local food procurement policies in Alberta schools.
Because it’s comprehensive and aimed at all children, such an approach would have the benefit of not stigmatizing those children who would be in a position of having to ask for help, Raine said.
The Alberta NDP’s election platform included a promise to create a school lunch program.
“We are working hard to gather information on how we can make a targeted nutrition program work in the province,” said Education Minister David Eggen.
He said he plans to start touring school boards later this month and will be discussing school nutrition with them. He also has Alberta Education working on some scenarios with other ministries in an effort “to build a coherent strategy to have a school nutrition program.”
“I’m not going to commit [to a timeline] right now but we will have a targeted program piloting sooner rather than later for sure,” he said. “I would like to see it really quite quickly.”
Alberta Teachers’ Association President Mark Ramsankar said teachers are compassionate people who won’t let students go hungry but there has to be a widespread effort to address the root issue of child poverty.
“There needs to be government funding for school nutrition programs,” he said, “so that these needs are met systematically for all children who need it.” ❚
Kaitlin Jarvis: As a teacher, I have a cupboard for hungry students in my class. It’s not always those who are children from “poverty” homes. Kids are growing and developing at different rates and sometimes parents just don’t know.
Jean Porter: I had a couple of students I fed almost every day last year. The family went through a layoff and there were five kids ... times are tough. As teachers we care too much about our kids to let them suffer.