Hungry for Health: Leveling the field

What’s perpetuating student hunger, and the people working to fix it

Illustration of a boy lying in a field of grass with mouth wide open.

A soggy poutine made of frozen fries and mired in discolored gravy doesn’t exactly scream ‘eat me.’ But when denied such an option through Ontario’s cafeteria junk food ban, many high school students went elsewhere to get the greasier (and cheaper) fare they craved. In 2012, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) closed 32 cafeterias because of plummeting profits in the wake of the Healthy Schools: Food and Beverage Policy.

Eating healthy doesn’t come cheap, and the numbers around food insecurity are staggering. Food security—access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food—is simply not a reality for many. As the cost of food rises, income levels fail to follow suit, leaving a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. “Across Canada,” notes Toronto Youth Food Policy Council Chair, Melana Roberts, “one in six young people are identified as being food insecure. Almost four-million Canadians experience food insecurity.” Of those accessing food banks regularly, one-third are children and youth.

For young people, lack of proper nutrients and vitamins can cause enormous health issues down the line, including obesity, developmental abnormalities, and a compromised immune system. A precarious food situation—and the stress of trying to concentrate when you’re hungry and worried about where your next meal is coming from—can lead to behavioural problems, aggression, anxiety, depression, and attention deficit disorder.

But accessing healthy food on a regular basis is a surprisingly complex issue—one that factors in sustainability, location, income and education. How do you address growing food illiteracy while creating a healthy food culture at school? And how do you make sure everyone gets a fair slice in the midst of a food security crisis?

Changing the culture
Erin Beagle is the Executive Director of Roots To Harvest, a Thunder Baybased organization that works with marginalized young people via work around food. Their Urban Market Garden, Farm Workdays and Food Security Organization Workdays provide employment while building workplace skills and a sense of community. They also bring local, healthy food to schools through Farm to Caf and the Get Fresh Cafe; initiatives that provide fresh-from-scratch Ontario food everyday in cafeterias.

“In a high school world,” says Beagle, “a food culture is imposed on kids. This is what you like, we’re going to get pizza again because that’s what all kids like. And they want that stuff, absolutely. But you know what? They’ll also eat a Thai curry salad, or they’ll try roasted beets. A lot of kids will say ‘I never eat this food’—but when they harvest it themselves, then all of a sudden it has new meaning for them. They have a different experience with it.”

Beagle thinks students can be more involved in developing the food culture of their schools. “Schools should have a food philosophy. You don’t go to a vegetarian restaurant and try to get meat. That’s just not their philosophy. If you come to a school and they’re telling you about what’s good for your body, what’s good for learning—then you should be able to get food that reflects that. Whether it’s in your cafeteria or your breakfast program. You need a food philosophy to back that up.”

Katie German agrees. She coordinates the School Grown program at FoodShare. It’s a schoolyard farming social enterprise in Toronto that employs 25 students to work on one of three urban schoolyard farms, harvesting some 6370 lbs of food.

She believes that growing food within the school can be a powerful way to spark student interest. “Even for students that don’t come out to the gardens. Lots of students go out front for a smoke, and they’ll stop and ask us what plant that is…it just makes it [growing food] relevant and accessible.”

The dominant narrative is that young people don’t care about being healthy, that they don’t care about their bodies, that they don’t care about food. “I think that our work has shown that they really do care quite deeply,” says German. “They want to make the most of the things that are available to them.”

A new approach
Policing candy bars and trans fats at the school cafeteria does little to broaden the conversation. Teachers, on the other hand, can play a crucial role in creating (or shifting) a school’s food philosophy. But they need to know how to incorporate food into the curriculum. “We’re advocating that everyone should take a food and nutrition class. But really, you should learn about the food system in all of your classes, more of a holistic approach,” says German. Teachers can also advocate for fresh, local options in their cafeteria—because let’s face it, they likely eat there too.

She points to one school that runs a horticulture class that works outside three or four days a week in the spring and fall. “They have a Food & Nutrition class that is cooking lunch from scratch every day. And the business class runs a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), so they’re doing posters and they actually package the food, and walk around to teachers and collect money.” This multi-pronged approach demonstrates the interconnected nature of the food system itself, and how many points of entry there are for students (and teachers) to get involved.

Understanding the system
A return to our roots is in order—by supporting local farmers where possible, by growing our own food, and by understanding our impact.

When students realize how they fit into the larger food system, they are often motivated to make positive changes. “For us, food literacy means increasing a person’s knowledge and experience with fresh ingredients,” says Beagle. “That comes from starting seeds, growing them, then having the experience of harvesting that food and seeing how it’s prepared—trying new tastes and flavors—in a way they can enjoy and get fulfillment from.”

Cookie Roscoe, Farmer’s Market Manager at The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto, knows the importance of making the connection between what you’re eating and who it affects. We want food to be cheap, but it always comes at a price. “We bring in Filipino workers to peel potatoes at seven bucks an hour because they’re not Canadian— so we can pay them less than what we consider a living wage,” says Roscoe. “Then we get to eat our cheaper restaurant meals. That’s the bottom line. By chasing this notion of cheap food, we’re forcing our neighbours into poverty.”

Still, she’s optimistic. She has witnessed a massive shift since she started the market. “I love that farmers’ markets are in the ascendency.” She points out that initially, “they [farmers] said, ‘I don’t want my kids to go into farming.’ But we have started to turn the ship around. Young people are now on my list to join the markets. I don’t have room for all the new young farmers who want to be at market.”

“I think, at a very young age, building comfortability and skills around cooking and fresh food—is really important,” adds Roberts. “Showing students how to grow and cook their own food is incredibly empowering.”

“It doesn’t take a lot to bring young people on board or make an impact. It’s just creating a space and the option and the choice,” says Roberts. “Food affects us all. It’s one of the most unifying things no matter where we live or what culture we come from. It’s so gratifying to see how young people can take these issues up as their own, and claim them, and make changes so quickly.”

The bottom line
Understanding the system can only go so far. It’s all moot if you can’t afford to eat. A million kids are still coming to school hungry. “Nutrition programs are usually focused on a younger audience; they’re not usually systematized through the high school system,” says Roberts. “And the income raising happening [experiments with Guaranteed Basic Income] isn’t really targeted at that group.”

High school students are often left in limbo. “Young people talk about food not being affordable, and being too far away to get to,” explains German. “And the food that is available to them is lower quality and is full of garbage. Even though many of them know that certain things aren’t the best things to be eating every day, they don’t feel like they have an option based on geography and income.”

Each year, an overwhelming number of students apply to work in the School Grown program that they simply can’t take on. For many hired, “their paycheque goes towards household food costs. So they’re contributing to their family’s food budget. And often it’s a choice between food and transit, or food and medication, or food and rent.”

All of this begs the question as to why there isn’t a nation-wide (or even Ontariowide) school food program. “We’re one of the only G8 countries that don’t have one [national food program]—meaning students would get breakfast and lunch every single day at the cost of the taxpayer,” says Beagle. Many schools are able to offer a free lunch because they splice together various sources of funding; but in the long-term, such a system is tenuous at best. “There are all kinds of things that a school offers that are fully paid for and funded,” says German. “I think that school lunch has to be viewed as one of those things.”

While a school cafeteria is just a business in the building, German asserts it should be a well-funded service. “If we want students that value food and food systems, we have to have schools that prioritize good food as well. You can’t teach about food if students can’t afford lunch.”

Sasha McNicoll coordinates the Coalition on Healthy School Food with Food Secure Canada. Their goal is to get federal investment in a national healthy school program where elementary and high school kids could get access to school food programs. “There are five-million students in Canada,” says McNicoll. “This is not a cheap endeavour, but we think it needs to be a cost-share program, funded by all levels of government as well as organizations, the corporate sector and parents (where applicable).” She hopes that when the government rolls out its National Food Policy, that it “starts with kids. And puts in place programs that put healthy eating for kids first—like a national school food program.”

McNicoll would love for organizations like OSSTF/FEESO to become members of the coalition and help push this initiative forward. But individual educators can also help; by organizing letter writing campaigns to MPs, by advocating school food programs within their schools, and by being champions for those programs—talking about the difference that they see in their students—not only in terms of physical health and education, but also mental health.

After high school is often when students face the most hardship when it comes to food security. After books, rent and tuition are paid, the income generated from menial part-time employment is barely enough to cover skyrocketing food costs. “Food insecurity in relation to income and affordability is really the most significant and problematic issue around food for young people,” says Roberts.

To combat this, many food advocates argue that we need to enshrine access to food as a right and establish a Guaranteed Minimum Income for Canadians. “I want to be very clear about the root causes of food insecurity,” says Merryn Maynard, Program Coordinator at Meal Exchange, the only national non-profit working on food issues on post-secondary campuses in Canada. “It’s lack of finances to purchase foods. If we’re talking about improving cooking skills, or food budgeting—that’s certainly a way to try to cope with the fact that they don’t have enough money for food. But the bottom line is the lack of money.”

Creating a sustainable, healthy food system—where no student is left behind—won’t come quickly, and it won’t come easily. But we owe it to our kids to fight for it.

About Tiffy Thompson
Tiffy Thompson is a Toronto-based writer and illustrator whose work has been featured in VICE, The Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, The Grid, Toronto Standard, Today’s Parent and She Does the City.

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