The View From Here – A universal national, school nutrition program is long overdue

Tom Henihan

Napoleon Bonaparte famously said “an army marches on its stomach.”

As a military man, Napoleon knew that the most courageous and able soldiers, capable of prevailing over the most formidable adversaries, could always be defeated by malnourishment and hunger.

Students also march ahead academically, socially and athletically on their stomachs and the most intelligent student, the most gregarious and outgoing individual and the most disciplined athlete will be defeated in their pursuits if he or she does not have proper, consistent nourishment.

As we have just entered a new school year, it is important to pay attention to the fact that many students are unable to succeed, not because they are unwilling to learn, deliberately inattentive or lack ability but because they go to school hungry.

And to pursue the army metaphor a little further, each generation of students are the next line of defence, the next line of operation and as such they all deserve an equal opportunity to march ahead in formation, not as a disparate group where some enjoy advantages while others must contend with disproportionate obstacles.

Every few years, the federal government of the day makes some noise about creating a universal national, school nutrition program and although just about everyone agrees that hunger and the lack of proper nutrition places students at a serious disadvantage, no initiative is ever taken.

Many schools have breakfast and lunch programs but these programs usually depend on donations or community and school fundraising.

Due to their uncertain resources, these programs are neither universal nor consistent in terms of nutrition.

Schools do their best to identify the kids who need to avail of these programs but that is not always easy.

For instance, we usually presume that students from homes that are seemingly financially and emotionally stable, that those kids by default go to school having had a good breakfast and carrying a healthy lunch and return home to a healthy supper. However, this is not always the case.

The advantage in a universal school food program is that all students can avail of the program regardless of apparent means, levelling the playing field for all students and diminishing the stigma that many students and parents feel when a child needs to avail of these programs.

A 2017 UNICEF report found that Canada performs well in indicators related to education but amid many pros and cons, the report ultimately stated:

“The inequalities between families in income and food security are alarming.”

No matter how progressive or sophisticated our school systems become, it is all for nothing for many disadvantaged students if we continue to passively accept that students go to school unable to learn due to hunger.

Given the relentless focus on gender issues by school boards and all levels of government, it seems remiss that these parties fail to put as much energy and commitment into guaranteeing that all students enjoy the equality, dignity and basic human right of having enough to eat and proper nutrition.


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