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The Impacts of Food Insecurity on Students in Canada

By: Katherine England

Katherine England

Education Collaborator

Katherine is a Registered Early Childhood Educator, holds a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education and recently completed her Masters of Science in Elementary Education. She has had the privilege of working with students across the Greater Toronto Area for the past decade, and each school year she learns more from her students, their families and her colleagues. Her passion is special education, and she hopes to continue supporting students in an inclusive and equitable manner. She has two children of her own, a sixteen year old son and an eight year old daughter. In her free time, she loves spending time outdoors with her family and hiking some of Toronto’s city trails.

My name is Katherine, and for the past decade I have worked in early childhood education in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), where I have seen the impacts that poverty can have on my students. I have witnessed many students come to school without the food or water they need to support their development and their school day. Despite our students’ ongoing needs, we as educators are not always able to help our students—due in large part to lack of funding for school nutrition programs. While I recognize that some schools are fortunate enough to have school nutrition programs in place, I also know from my own experiences that these programs are often stretched thin and rely on volunteers and donations. I know that we cannot expect our students to focus on their learning when they are hungry and I know that it is heartbreaking to see these needs persist in our schools. Witnessing the poverty and food insecurity that our students are experiencing has made me passionate about change in our education system and about the need for a national school nutrition program.  

Students come to our classrooms from across the globe, from diverse family types and living situations. Many of our students are dealing with the impacts of poverty, and as educators we see the effects of this in our classrooms. Educators know that when their students are hungry, they cannot fully concentrate at school. As stated by Anisef et al. (2017), “food insecurity has been linked to lower test scores, trouble interacting with peers, poor health and higher prevalence of illness” (p.4).  Hunger can be a barrier to education for many students across Canada, and educators often lack the resources to make meaningful changes.  

Many educators and administrators are unaware of the fact that Canada is the only G7 country without a national school nutrition program. Bas (2020) highlights the fact that “unfortunately, Canada is the only G7 country with neither a national school food program nor national standards” (para.3). School nutrition programs that do exist in Canada are highlighted in this recent CBC News clip, where viewers get a better look at how these programs are run. It is clear from this video and from my professional experiences that school nutrition programs vary greatly from school to school, school board to school board, and from community to community. Our current school nutrition programs are not always able to meet the demands of the students who need them. As many educators know, existing school nutrition programs are often inconsistent, underfunded, and reliant on at least some volunteers. With the rising cost of living spreading across our nation, it is not surprising that Research to Identify Policy Options to Reduce Food Insecurity (2022),  shown here, has found that one in four Canadian children are facing food insecurity (p.14). With this statistic in mind, it is very likely that educators will have students in their classrooms that are not sure where their next meal or snack is coming from. However, without consistent and well-run school nutrition programs in place, it can be difficult for educators to offer their students nutritional support. 

It is important for educators, administrators, and communities to know that food insecurity impacts the holistic well-being of our students, and that school communities can be instrumental in supporting nutrition.  Hunger impacts so much more than just the ability to focus. According to Anisef et al. (2017) and their study focusing on TDSB students, found here, “the developmental damage caused by food insecurity can extend into psychological, cognitive, behavioural and social realms” (p.15). Educators might see this in their students when they are unable to concentrate on their work, cannot engage fully or positively with their peers, or experience self-regulation difficulties. 

It is imperative that educators remember to think about the stigmatization that some students and their families may feel if they are unable to bring nutritious foods, or any foods,  to school regularly. This is why it is so important for school nutrition programs to offer food to everyone who wants it, regardless of whether or not some students might be perceived as “not needing” access as much as others. When a child is hungry, they have no choice but to focus their attention on their immediate physical needs. Being preoccupied by hunger and the worry of the unknown takes a child away from their natural development. Studies have shown that the “psychological distress associated with food insecurity may constitute a form of chronic social adversity that can directly impact children’s development and health” (Leung et al, 2020, p.8). Proper nutrition is critical in the healthy development of children, and without it we will continue to see the ill effects of hunger impact academic, social, emotional and the behaviour of our students. 

Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child highlights that children’s access to nutritious foods and clean water is a right, and therefore it should be a priority for those of us who work with children. Despite the global and economic position of Canada, it remains clear that many of our families and children are living with food insecurity.  In 2021, the Liberal government made this campaign promise to “work with provincial, territorial, municipal, Indigenous partners, and stakeholders to develop a National School Food Policy and work towards a national school nutritious meal program with a $1 billion dollar investment over five years.” The design and implementation of a national school nutrition program would allow schools to be a part of the solution. It would empower students to more fully understand healthy eating, to focus on their education and it would fight the inequitable access to nutrition that is playing out in schools and communities across the country. 

It is essential that this issue be seen as a priority for the current Liberal government or any other elected officials. Children have the right to healthy foods just like they have the right to an education. It is possible to create a national school nutrition that we can be proud of and that sets our children up for success. As seen here in this webinar series presented by the Coalition for Healthy School Food (2018), there are national school nutrition programs that are running successfully across the globe. While we continue to wait for an inclusive national school nutrition program, as educators we can work with our communities to best support our students’ development right now. While many Canadians are dealing with the rising cost of living, many will also support their community schools and families if given the opportunity.

Educators have the potential to inspire a strong sense of community in their classrooms. Becoming more involved in local agencies is one way that we can promote change in our communities. Supporting local food banks through food drive fundraising or through the collection of non-perishable items supports school communities. Educators and administrators should reach out to their communities to share initiatives, resources and information through school newsletters and teacher information pages. Organizing snack clubs with the help of the funding that we can secure, the support of parent council volunteers, and community partners, will allow schools to offer their students at least some food choice. Creating school to community gardening clubs would allow educators to collaborate with others to build sustainable produce sharing initiatives.

While these are not the ideal long term solutions, they are concrete ways in which we can act now to support our students. It is no secret that educators and administrators are already stretched thin and busy with all of the needs in our schools today. However, when schools and communities work together, it can help bridge the gap that exists within our current school nutrition system. In Toronto’s Scarborough neighbourhood, for example, there are school nutrition programs that are serving their communities. According to Corvette Junior Public School,  “working in collaboration with the Toronto Foundation for Student Success, Corvette Junior P.S., is able to offer both a nutritional breakfast and morning meal program daily in accordance with Canada’s Food Guide” (para.6). I know that this type of school nutrition program makes a big difference for the students, for their learning and their larger community. 

In a country with as many resources as Canada, it is difficult to understand how any of our children could be facing a long day at school or home with empty stomachs. As educators, we want to create a generation of students that have witnessed solutions created for the problems that exist in their communities and communities working together to address those problems. When we are unable to solve issues as crucial as child hunger, we are making it clear that we are not prioritizing our children and their optimal development. We want to show our children that we are problem solvers, that we can see when things are not working and then work together to find solutions. There is nothing more heartbreaking than watching our children go hungry in school and beyond. We have the power and the tools to make changes to our current system, but we have to make it a priority—and we have to be able to work together.

References

 References

Anisef, P., Robson, K., Maier, R., Brown, R. S. (2017). Food Insecurity and Educational Outcomes: A Focus on TDSB Students. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Bas, JA. (2020, August 20). School Food in the G7 – The Time is Ripe for Canada to Catch Up.  Coalition for Healthy School Food.  https://www.healthyschoolfood.ca/post/school-food-in-the-g7 -the-time-is-ripe-for-canada-to-catch -up.

CBC/Radio Canada. (2023). How High Grocery Prices Hurt School Food Programs. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2269051459741

Food Insecurity and Educational Outcome: A Focus on TDSB Students. (2017). Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Leung, C. W., Stewart, A. L., Portela-Parra, E. T., Adler, N. E., Laraia, B. A., & Epel, E. S. (2020). Understanding the Psychological Distress of Food Insecurity: A Qualitative Study of Children’s Experiences and Related Coping Strategies. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120(3), 395–403. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2019.10.012

School Nutrition and healthy eating: Liberal Party of Canada. Go to Liberal Party of Canada. (n.d.). https://liberal.ca/our-platform/school-nutrition-and-healthy-eating/ 

Tarasuk, V., Dachner, N., & Mitchell, A. (2022). Household Food Insecurity in Canada : PROOF: Research to Identify Policy Options to Reduce Food Insecurity.

The Coalition for Healthy School Food. (2018). School Food Programs Around the World: Lessons for Canada. https://www.healthyschoolfood.ca/school-food-programs-around-the-world#:~:text=The%20Brazilian%20National%20School%20Food,in%20the%20country’s%20public%20schools.

Toronto District School Board. (n.d). Corvette Junior Public School. https://www.tdsb.on.ca/DesktopModules/Tdsb.Webteam.Modules.SPC/schoolprofile.aspx?schno=4420

Zhong, A., Yin, L., O’Sullivan, B., & Ruetz, A. T. (2023). Historical Lessons for Canada’s Emerging National School Food Policy: An Opportunity to Improve Child Health. Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention in Canada, 43(9), 421–425. https://doi.org/10.24095/hpcdp.43.9.04