Saskatchewan researcher says school food program ‘a long time coming’

Photo submitted by the University of Saskatchewan. Rachel Engler-Stringer is a professor of community health and epidemiology in the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Medicine.

Expert says well-designed school meal program can lead to better grades, improved mental health and less chronic illness later in life.

Bryn Levy, Saskatoon Star Phoenix

A researcher from the University of Saskatchewan says a national school food program has the potential to deliver big benefits to Canadian kids, parents and society, provided it’s set up well.

“I can say that this has been a long time coming,” Rachel Engler-Stringer said of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement this week that the upcoming federal budget will include $1 billion over five years to set up a school meals program in conjunction with the provinces.

Engler-Stringer, a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Medicine, has spent the better part of the last 20 years researching child health and community nutrition.

She pointed to research by colleagues showing 100 years of advocacy for a school meal program in Canada, particularly in the years after the Second World War, when most other developed nations began instituting programs of their own.

Canada, she said, “went a different way” in the post-war years, opting instead to institute a family allowance program in 1945 that was later phased out.

Now, Engler-Stringer said Canada has a unique opportunity to learn from other countries’ programs, and to take the best from the network of small school food programs that have sprung up across the country.

She said ideally, programs should seek to provide meals consistent with Canada’s food guide and stressed that they must not become an opportunity for the food industry to market products to children.

She also called for programs to be “locally adapted,” noting for example that in Saskatoon, many schools have large newcomer populations who may require vegetarian or halal options.

School schedules should also factor into how food programs are delivered, Engler-Stringer added, noting as an example that a “healthy snacks” program might be best for schools in Ontario that typically opt for longer recess periods as opposed to a designated lunch hour.

In Saskatchewan, she suggested rural school divisions where kids are bussed in from farther away might be better suited to setting up a breakfast program.

However, they’re delivered, Engler-Stringer said reviews of decades’ worth of research from across the globe shows school food programs provide nutritional benefits for kids, helping them develop well and potentially preventing them from suffering chronic health problems later in life.

School food programs have also been shown to promote better school attendance, higher grades and better mental health, she added.

Programs which include requirements to source at least some food locally can also provide a new market for local farmers, Engler-Stringer said.

While commonplace throughout the developed world, Engler-Stringer acknowledged many parents in Saskatchewan might bristle at the idea of a “strange” new program.

She noted research has found that the lunches parents send kids to school with are generally lacking in nutrition, regardless of factors like a family’s income or socio-economic status.

This is attributed largely to how school days are set up, she said, noting she herself has struggled to provide healthy lunches for her own school-aged daughter.

“Kids have a short amount of time to eat; they want to go play,” she noted, adding this dynamic tends to encourage parents to send little ones off to school with a bag full of pre-packaged snacks like cheese strings and cookies so that they’ll “at least eat something.”

By contrast, she said school meal programs take the pressure off parents to pack lunches. Programs can also be means-tested to control costs, she said, noting that Prince Edward Island has since 2020 offered a “pay what you can” program where parents pay as little as $1, or up to around $5 per day, depending on their income —which she noted is still less than most parents spend to provide bag lunches now.

Overall, Engler-Stringer said when “looking at the bigger picture” of preventing chronic illness, establishing healthy eating habits and encouraging more educational attainment for students, research shows that every dollar invested in providing healthy food in schools can yield a return on investment of between $2 and $8.