Nearly a quarter of Canadian children age two to 17 are overweight or obese. This has led to a flurry of policies in the past few years. Most provinces have school nutrition guidelines and many schools have banned junk food from vending machines in the last few years. Although there are school programs throughout the country where healthy breakfasts or lunches are served, Canada is the only G8 country without a national school meal program.
Says Bill Jeffery, national coordinator of the Canadian branch of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, ‘School meal programs help boost rates of attendance and graduation, improve performance, reduce behavioural problems, and help form life-long eating patterns that can lead to longer disability-free lives.’ He adds: ‘Some say government shouldn’t play a role in what kids eat, but we have to make sure biological needs are met while they are at school’it’s the mark of a civilized society.’
In B.C., 409,000 students in schools throughout the province are given fresh fruit and vegetables every other week as a school snack, part of the B.C. School Fruit & Vegetable Nutritional Program. In 2005, Dr. Paul Veugelers, a professor at the University of Alberta, conducted a three-year study in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. Project schools followed a Comprehensive School Health framework (healthy and affordable options for lunches, no access to junk food at school, and increased physical education, among other things). The result? Kids were more physically active, had healthier diets and there were fewer overweight and obese kids, compared to students attending schools without the program.
This led to the APPLE program’Alberta Project Promoting Active Living and Healthy Eating’that began in 2008 and is now in 42 schools in Alberta, achieving similar results. Part of the logic is economic: ‘There is a huge burden on health care if we don’t act,’ says Veugelers.
In fact, a Queen’s University study found that the combined cost of physical inactivity and obesity is close to $10 billion’nearly five percent of total healthcare costs. Health Canada provides a number of resources, such as Canada’s Food Guide, but maintains that health and education are provincial jurisdictions.
Several MPs believe that while nutrition in schools is a provincial responsibility, children’s health is a federal one. Olivia Chow, NDP MP for Trinity-Spadina in Toronto, has been focused on implementing the NDP Children’s Nutrition Initiative to support provincial and local programs that provide healthy meals to children under the age of 18. ‘There are little pockets of excellent initiatives, like Paul’s, across the country,’ says Chow. ‘What we don’t have is an umbrella. In the long run it will save money because health problems will be avoided.’
Debbie Field, director of Toronto’s FoodShare’which pioneered school nutrition programs throughout Toronto in the 1990s and continues to support over 700 programs’says we have to act now: ‘Parents want their child to do well in school. Access to one healthy meal a day is a low-cost way of making this possible. What Paul Finkelstein proves is you can make kids part of the equation’they can be the engine to make it happen.’
This article was originally titled "The Fink effect" in the September 2012 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!