Food insecurity – when people do not have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life at all time – is a problem for 7.7% of Canadian households. A new report by the Conference Board of Canada recommends that school-based meal programs need to be available in all Canadian schools to counteract this problem. A Globe and Mail article agrees that children should be well-nourished to ensure optimal performance, and explains that more effort is needed to better organize the already existing patchwork of food programs.
However, are school-based meal programs enough? Food plays a powerful role in our daily lives and is an important determinant of health. But food insecurity is, more often than not, a result of income insecurity. School-based meal programs would temporarily relieve a child’s hunger, but ultimately fail to solve the problem of why kids show up to school hungry in the first place. Hunger and nutritional adequacy can only be properly addressed by ensuring that families have the finances to provide nutritious food for their children, which means increased employment opportunities, higher minimum wages, and increases in income support programs.
Furthermore, research has shown that school-based meal programs may not be as wonderful as they sound. Unintended consequences may arise, such as dependency, stigmatization of the lower-income kids who receive the program, and the potential danger of excluding parent(s) from program planning and operations.
Also, what happens to the children during the summer months when they are no longer in school?
School programs can provide tremendous relief for some families, and ease the pangs of hunger that affect a child’s ability to learn in school. But they are not enough. Children’s hunger is a symptom of food insecurity and wider social and economic inequality. We can’t just treat the symptom but need to address the cause of the problem through comprehensive policy changes to reduce income inequality and promote healthier living conditions for all children and their parents.