Education and food are absolutely fundamental to a healthy life. So why in a country as progressive and wealthy as Canada, do we still have such a hard time putting these two things together?
I started Pilot Project for Universal Lunches in Schools Inc. to improve the health of our communities by creating a school lunch program based on the Finnish model. Finland’s school food system is considered by experts to be the best in the world, and this is what I want for my people in Saskatchewan and Canada.
School food has always been part of the backdrop of my work, from pre-kindergarten to adult GED students, across many school divisions and First Nations communities. It is often a source of frustration when students have no lunch, or an inadequate lunch.
Recent trends in school lunches have become a collection of snacks, which could include 5 or more crinkly plastic packages of quasi-edible, food-like substances, or ultra-processed microwavable products.
There have been many steps in my mission to improve the school experience. One of the most important ones was a Grad Studies course through the University of Saskatchewan: What Can Be Learned From the School System in Finland? The class included a 2-week trip to Finland for a first hand account of how it works. That trip changed my life.
"Under-nourished students need more than a cookie at morning recess."
Seeing how the Finns invest in schooling and pupil welfare was a lightbulb moment for me. During my career in education I was accustomed to doing what we have always done, making do with inadequate resources, inadequate infrastructure and inadequate staff. That’s just how we do things in Canada, and we haven’t seen much momentum for that to change.
My thinking has now been unstuck and I know that a different system, based on an upstream approach that focuses on equity and pupil welfare, can work in Canada, too.
PPULS is now working towards establishing a pilot project lunch program to demonstrate how school food practices will positively affect students and reduce negative impacts of the social determinants of health such as poverty and food insecurity.
We still use a charity model of school food practice in Canada, where nourishment is provided only to students who are in clear and immediate need. Where universal programs do exist, it is usually a ‘snack program’ on alternating days of the week. Under-nourished students need more than a cookie at morning recess. The Coalition for Healthy School Food is Canada’s national organization and they use the phrase “a patchwork of programming” to describe the current school food landscape.
School food programs typically face the same limiting factors: no cold storage to keep fresh fruits and vegetables (if any), limited food preparation area (if any), and limited staff to manage food purchasing, preparation, delivery and clean-up. This is why school food programs often include quick, packaged, processed foods with more sugar than nutrients.
"Considering what we spend elsewhere, downstream, the costs of having a dignified food service for our children in Canada is a bargain."
Our vision is a dignified food service where all students receive a hot, nutritious meal for lunch. There’s a lot of structural challenges to overcome, like renovating for space to eat, cold storage to keep food fresh, and equipment to wash the trays, dishes and cutlery. But the payoff could be well worth it, especially when lunchtime becomes a social setting and ‘instructional time’ for students, part of the overall health curriculum.
We know that a healthy diet includes fresh, fibrous vegetables every day. Caloric inputs should align with outputs, but we don’t teach these things thoroughly enough in education. We point the finger at adults making ‘poor food decisions’, instead of looking to the upstream source of the problem in our education system.
Most people outside the education system find these approaches to be common sense, but school personnel know there is a large gap to close, because it’s a format so unfamiliar for us in elementary schools. One of the photos I took during my trip to Finland was at a secondary school where the cafeteria staff was setting up for the day. The table had a clean white cloth with table skirting, like you’d expect to see at a fancy hotel or wedding. But it wasn’t a special occasion. The Finnish philosophy is that even teenagers are worthy of dignified food service.
"We point the finger at adults making ‘poor food decisions’, instead of looking to the upstream source of the problem in our education system."
Considering what we spend elsewhere, downstream, the costs of having a dignified food service for our children in Canada is a bargain. Our population faces a public health epidemic of type II diabetes, heart disease, and many other chronic conditions related to obesity and diet. We get bogged down pointing to lifestyle and personal decisions, but the real sources of these health outcomes are social and economic. Part of how we address them should be providing decent nourishment for our young people right from the start.
Universal school food provision is a way to use food and nutrition to invest upstream.
PPUPLS director Rhea Good has seen a wide variety of school food programs in Saskatchewan schools. She is learning about politics and advocacy along this journey to actualize PPLUS into a functioning pilot project. Rhea is a certified Nutrition Coordinator and also operates a school-based greenhouse and garden.