Eight-year-old Giovanni trots into the dining room of his public school in Naples, Italy. Today's lunch is his favourite – pesto lasagna. He plops down at a table for six in a chair beside his teacher, Signorina Rossi, who asks him if he saw the big soccer match on television last night. Teacher and students chat quietly as they eat – first the lasagna and then a mozzarella, tomato and basil salad made from organic products grown on a local farm. There's no rush – the lunch period is 45 minutes long.
On this side of the Atlantic, Giovanni's six-year-old Canadian cousin Sarah sits on the floor of a noisy gym in Winnipeg, surrounded by a hundred other kids eating their lunches.
Usually it's a cheese slice sandwich, a packaged granola bar and some limp carrot sticks. Her mom only packs food that won't spoil and that her small daughter can open by herself and eat without making too much mess. Some days Sarah doesn't eat at school at all. She tells her mom that at lunchtime she gets a stomachache. As soon as the 15- minute lunch period is over, she lines up to throw the food wrappers – and, often, the uneaten food – into the garbage bins.
School food in the United States
American children have been fed at school under the National School Lunch Act since 1946. Generations of British kids have grown up on school dinners (recently made more nutritious at the insistence of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver). In food-loving Italy, children such as Giovanni tucked into a million organic school meals last year. And the governments of countries such as Finland and Sweden – where the vast majority of children take part in school meal programs – see the programs as investments in children's health, not as tax drains.
But in Canada, despite the remarkable work of nonproï¬�t groups, it's estimated that only 10 to 15 per cent of children have access to school meals. And those meals are not provided by a well-funded national program, but by a patchwork of individual volunteer efforts, some provincial government funding and corporate donations.
It's time for change
The need to start a national school food program is urgent, says Mary McKenna, professor of nutrition at the University of New Brunswick. McKenna is also a registered dietitian and a member of the board of directors of Breakfast for Learning (BFL), a Canadian Living foundation that provides breakfast, lunch and snack programs for kids across Canada. With academic precision, she ticks off how school food programs help children: they encourage healthier eating (research shows children who eat school meals are more likely to consume milk, fruits and vegetables); they can help reduce child obesity rates (which have almost tripled in the past 25 years); they help ensure access to food for all students; they improve kids' concentration and ability to learn; they reduce financial and time pressures on parents, many of whom are facing job loss and steeply rising food prices; they lower student absenteeism; they improve student behaviour; and they teach children about good nutrition. So what is Canada waiting for?
Page 1 of 4 - Check out page two to read about people who are truly committed to school food programs.
Teens help out too
Seventeen-year-old Khushboo Patel found out firsthand the benefits of a school food program. Money was tight when she and her parents moved to Canada from India in 2005, the year she started Grade 9 at George Harvey Collegiate Institute in Toronto, a school with a meal program. So Khushboo appreciated that she could sit down before class to a grilled cheese sandwich or a muffin and juice. She remembers the good food smells in the school hallway on her first day as "really welcoming."
Khushboo started volunteering in her school's program and quickly realized that a lot of her schoolmates needed the program as much as she did. Some, working long evening hours at part-time jobs, didn't take the time to eat in the morning. Others grabbed junk food for breakfast. And still others, especially students living on their own away from family, didn't have the money to buy food. "Many students cannot afford it – they actually cannot. I've been working here for four years and I know it," says Khushboo.
She especially enjoys serving the students who enrol in her school's English as a Second Language (ESL) program, which attracts kids from across the city. When they first arrive, they often aren't familiar with the food offered. "We let them know that this is actually the nutritious food you eat in the morning," says Khushboo, who recently graduated from the school and has started in a sciences program at the University of Toronto. She adds that after a couple of months, ESL students can say "good morning" in English and ask for what they want.
The program's organizer, Vince McCormack, is a youth worker at the school. Vince and family studies teacher Joan Seignoret started the effort 10 years ago with money out of their own pockets. In their second year, they received a small grant from BFL. For the 2008-2009 school year, they expected to serve 13,000 meals. To run the program, which continues to receive BFL funding, the pair get to school every day at 7:50 a.m., do about 200 shopping trips a year, write grant applications, raise funds and organize student volunteers. Both Vince and Joan admit to being tired. "The viability of programs depends on volunteers – it's our Achilles heel," says Vince.
Susan Kelly, the principal at Lewisville Middle School in Moncton, N.B., can sympathize. She's been running her school's breakfast program with the help of volunteers for 10 years. Before school starts every morning, about half of the 300 students, most of whom arrive by bus, congregate in the cafeteria for breakfast. "It's hard to ask a hungry kid to learn," she says.
Susan doesn't begrudge the hours she spends grocery shopping, making toast and cleaning up – all on top of her demanding work as a principal. And she realizes the program is more important than ever during the economic downturn. Indeed, she's seen the number of students at breakfast increase as more and more local parents have lost their jobs – but, sadly, she can't say for sure that her program will survive.
Page 2 of 4 - Read page three to learn how to build this program in Canada.
The menu "depends on what we can get our hands on at the time," Susan says, explaining that she relies on donations from local merchants for food as well as small grants such as one from BFL. She's heard rumblings that the fruit and vegetable grant she currently receives from the province may get cut next year and she isn't sure what she'll replace it with. "When we started 10 years ago, we were the only program in the area, but now there are 38 competing for donations and funds. We're also competing with the food banks and soup kitchens."
Wendy Wong, president and CEO of BFL, has heard it all before and would dearly love to offer all Canadian public schools the financial support they need to sustain their food programs. But on a budget of $5.4 million in 2008 – raised from a combination of corporate and individual donations – BFL can offer grants to about 3,000 programs serving 360,000 students. Last year, the foundation was only able to grant 27 per cent of the funds requested for breakfast, lunch and snack programs.
Building a dream
Were she able to wave a magic wand, McKenna would create a national school food program built on what has already been started in Canada, and the knowledge of what works in other countries. Such a program, she says, should be universal and free from kindergarten to Grade 12, as it is in countries such as Finland and Sweden. McKenna adds that programs should adhere to high nutritional standards, and should be the only outlet for food offered in the school, as occurs in Japan.
The eating experience should also be pleasant. Children need adequate time to eat in a calm atmosphere, not sit on gym or hallway floors, as currently happens in some schools. And the focus should be on serving wholesome food – "real food," as McKenna calls it – that is locally grown (when possible) and environmentally friendly.
Other items on her wish list include staff or volunteers trained in nutrition to prepare and serve the food, and having the importance of good nutrition reinforced in the classroom. In South Korea, for example, dietitians teach nutrition in elementary schools.
Take it to the government
For the past five years, BFL has taken every opportunity to make the case to the federal government for a national school nutrition strategy. BFL representatives have teamed up with other organizations, including the Canadian Home and School Federation and the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, to make submissions to various federal ministries. And while opposition parties have offered support for funding a national program, the current government has not.
McKenna, who prepared BFL's latest submission to the federal finance minister, says that one of the arguments against a national school food program is that education and health policies are set by the provinces, not the federal government. "My response to that is, government has to become more creative." As a first step, it could provide matching funds for programs funded by provinces, territories or nongovernmental organizations, she says. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture operates that country's program. "A well-designed school meal program shows that we value our children," adds McKenna.
Stephen Samis, director of health policy at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, suggests that federal and provincial or territorial governments find a way to collaborate on the issue of a national school food program. "The evidence is clear that investing in our children and their healthy development is good for both their future and our country's future."
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Breakfast: Don't leave home without it
If there's one fight with your kids you don't want to lose, it's the breakfast battle. It's a struggle faced by parents across the country, but hectic schedules make it all too easy to give up. Here are some things to consider before you permanently junk the toaster.
• 31 per cent of elementary students and 62 per cent of secondary students do not eat breakfast daily.
• One in three parents say their children only eat breakfast if they make them.
• Of these parents, 54 per cent say their kids skip breakfast because they are too rushed in the morning.
• 43 per cent say it is because their child doesn't like breakfast foods.
• 50 per cent of children don't get enough fruits and veggies.
• Only 25 per cent eat the recommended amount of grains.
• Studies show that children who are well-nourished perform better in school.
Source: National survey results: Taking a Look at Kids' Breakfast Nutrition in Canada,
Breakfast for Learning, 2008 National Report Card.
The better breakfast challenge in support of breakfast for learning
A Canadian public education and fund- raising campaign, the 21-Day Better Breakfast Challenge is aimed at encouraging families to eat a healthy breakfast daily. For every participant who registers, $1 will be donated to Breakfast for Learning, a national nonprofit organization that ensures children attend school well-nourished. Sign up at www.nutellabreakfastchallenge.com until Nov. 30, 2009, for a chance to win a chef- prepared breakfast party at your home.
Food After High School
The link between learning and nutrition doesn't end once students leave public school. But, sadly, campus food isn't necessarily brain food. The Globe and Mail Canadian University Report gives most universities Ds and Cs for the quality of food on offer to students. The one exception is the University of Guelph, which has been given the top marks for several years running and last year pulled off an A-.
Ed Townsley, head of the hospitality services department at the University of Guelph and past president of the Canadian College and University Food Services Association, says the university takes food quality seriously.
Like most campuses, Guelph offers students lots of options: 19 locations, including cafés, cafeterias, full-serve restaurants and – yes – fast-food franchises.
But what sets Guelph apart is that it teaches ï¬�rst-year students who are on their own for the ï¬�rst time how to make good food choices. At every food station, there are recipe cards that list ingredients and give the nutritional breakdown of each item sold. The nutritional content information for fast food is provided by the franchises themselves. And to make sure students understand what they're choosing, the university runs a student nutrition awareness program every year. Upper-year students in applied nutrition studies give presentations to teach ï¬�rst- years about good nutrition, and help them navigate through all their new choices.
Call to action
Think every student in Canada deserves access to a breakfast program? Sign our online petition for a National Child Nutrition Strategy at www.canadianliving.com/breakfastforlearning.
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