Hon. Art Eggleton, pursuant to notice of June 13, 2018, moved:
That the Senate urge the government to initiate consultations with the provinces, territories, Indigenous people, and other interested groups to develop an adequately funded national cost-shared universal nutrition program with the goal of ensuring healthy children and youth who, to that end, are educated in issues relating to nutrition and provided with a nutritious meal daily in a program with appropriate safeguards to ensure the independent oversight of food procurement, nutrition standards, and governance.
He said: I’ll try not to take too long, colleagues.
I rise to speak on my motion calling for a national youth nutrition program. Just over two years ago, when I was then deputy chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, we released a report titled Obesity in Canada: A Whole-of-Society Approach for a Healthier Canada.
During that study, we learned that children were growing up in a society that increasingly reinforces bad eating habits and actually works against achieving a healthy lifestyle. One of the recommendations in our report was for the Minister of Health to work with provincial and territorial counterparts to advocate for youth breakfast and lunch programs as well as nutrition literacy courses.
This is important because a publicly funded youth meal program addresses the problem of hunger and fosters a healthy relationship with food. It not only provides access to nutritious meals but can also be a valuable tool to facilitate student success and well-being. A universal nutrition program would provide a nutritious meal to all children; it would support the development of healthy eating patterns for all children, regardless of income.
The link between nutrition and its impact on health is indisputable. Healthy diets have been consistently linked with heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes and some cancers. The Canadian Medical Association estimates that poor diets caused over 65,000 deaths in Canada in 2010 alone.
Honourable senators, right now in Canada about 13 per cent — and this is what we found in our report — of children are obese with another 20 per cent being overweight. There has been a threefold increase in the proportion of obesity in the last three decades. Childhood obesity research tells us that obese children are unlikely to outgrow weight issues as they mature. The Childhood Obesity Foundation states that if current trends continue, by 2040, up to 70 per cent of adults aged 40 years will be overweight.
So, colleagues, to avoid this future, Canadian children need to get a healthier start today.
This will require contributions from all levels of society. Parents, teachers, coaches and the federal, provincial, territorial and local governments all have a role in this fight if we are to see an appreciable effect on the health of our children.
We know that children who eat nutritious meals feel better, and they learn better. Research findings from Harvard University have concluded that breakfast programs significantly improve students’ cognitive abilities, allowing them to be more alert and pay better attention. They do better in terms of reading, math and other standardized test scores. Children getting breakfast at school do significantly better than their peers who do not eat breakfast. They get sick less often, and they have fewer episodes of dizziness, lethargy, stomach aches and ear aches. The evidence is clear and consistent.
So why in a wealthy country like Canada are so many children hungry and malnourished? All too often, many Canadian families do not have the time or the money to prepare healthy, complete meals for their families. As a result, the consumption of processed foods has increased drastically in the last few decades. The Canadian Medical Association reports that because less healthy foods are cheaper than healthier alternatives, individuals from lower-income homes tend to be more dependent on them for nourishment.
Canadian children, in particular, face serious challenges related to their diets. Only a third eat enough fruits and vegetables. One third of primary school students and two thirds of secondary students go to school without a nutritious breakfast. One quarter of calories consumed by children are from foods that are not recommended by Canada’s Food Guide.
We need look no further than cafeterias in schools or sports arenas to see why this is the case. They offer pizza, chicken nuggets, fries, maybe a caesar salad — food options that aren’t often nutritious. When you consider that children spend a large portion of their day in these places, it’s important to make sure that healthy options are available. Health care costs us a lot, all of society, so we need to pay attention to the direction that this unhealthy situation is going.
How can we expect that to happen when current programs have no national standard for nutrition to aim for and cannot depend on reliable funding? In many cases, they take donations of unhealthy, processed foods. That happens in a lot of the breakfast programs in this country.
As I’ve mentioned in this chamber many times, we have immense challenges in our country when it comes to poverty. Too many Canadians cannot afford to put healthy food on the table. They need to rely on food banks to feed their families. According to Statistics Canada, over 1 million children live in poverty, representing about 17 per cent of Canadian children. In 2016, according to Food Banks Canada, almost 900,000 Canadians depend on food banks every month; one third of these are children.
Make no mistake. Poor lifestyle choices and malnutrition have significant repercussions on the health and education of our youth. While it may be hard to believe, obesity in children is a form of malnutrition. We’ve all seen the tragic images of malnourished children in other countries, and they tend to be thin and wasting away. But according to the World Health Organization, malnutrition, which literally means bad nutrition, refers to consuming too little or too much of the wrong foods. Malnutrition here in Canada sometimes involves eating too much unhealthy food and sugary soft drinks because they are cheaper.
In a recent UNICEF report published in the summer of 2017, Canada ranked thirty-seventh out of 41 countries on access to nutritional food for children. According to the Conference Board of Canada, Canada is one of the only members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the OECD, without a national youth nutrition program.
Honourable colleagues, no level of food insecurity among children is acceptable. As a country that prides itself as a world leader in health, whose government is focused on children and families, this is frankly shameful.
Finland has a successful national nutrition program where children are fed a balanced, healthy meal every day while sitting around the table in a communal way, as a supervisor teaches them about nutrition, healthy eating and about table manners. That’s the combination for a national nutrition program for youth. In Brazil, school food programs by law must purchase 30 per cent of their food from small-scale local farmers.
You may be surprised to learn that our federal government already funds some programs providing nutritious meals to children. The Breakfast Club of Canada, which has helped new breakfast programs open in communities across the country, helps feed over 200,000 children every day. They received nearly half a million dollars in funding from the federal government in the 2016 fiscal year.
This past October, the Minister of Health announced that the Public Health Agency of Canada would invest over $1.2 million over three years in a program called Farm to School: Canada Digs In! This program promotes healthy eating, physical activity and wellness, and addresses the common risk factors that underlie major chronic diseases. As the Minister of Health said:
I am pleased to announce the Government of Canada’s support for this project that will make it easier for Canadian children and youth in schools and on campuses to access and learn about healthier food. Encouraging children and youth to try healthy food options, and learn more about where their food actually comes from, will help build the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating.
Senators, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Many groups across the country, like the Breakfast Club of Canada, are already running nutritious programs we can learn from and build upon for the rest of the country.
The City of Toronto, my hometown, runs many youth nutrition-related programs. One shining example is the Toronto District School Board’s free morning meal pilot program introduced in selected schools in the region. Their objective was to determine the impact of the program on student health, behaviour, attendance, attention and achievement. They found that students who ate breakfast three days or more per week had improved behaviour, reduced tardiness, reduced incidence of disciplinary problems, improved ability to stay on task and were more likely to have academic success compared to those who didn’t.
Alberta and Nova Scotia recently increased investment in school food programs, and many jurisdictions are exploring how healthy food can best be provided.
Not-for-profits from across the country are finding innovative ways not only to feed children but to also teach them how to cook, garden and to strengthen school communities with food.
The problem is that there are no national standards for what healthy foods are, for healthy foods served in schools and sports facilities. Nutrition standards are, for the most part, a patchwork of flimsy, inconsistent guidelines with wide variations of nutrition criteria among provinces. Some still permit the sale of foods with high fat, high salt and high sugar content. This leads to unequal access to nutritious foods for children across the country.
I believe the timing of this motion couldn’t be better because the Minister of Health is currently revising the Canada Food Guide as part of the government’s Healthy Eating Strategy. This would be a natural extension of that strategy.
Honourable colleagues, we can no longer turn a blind eye to what is quickly becoming a health crisis in our country. If we want to improve the health of our population, we need to instill healthy eating habits in people when they are young. Initiating a universal nutrition program where all Canadian children can get access to healthy food and also learn about nutrition is the right thing to do, and it’s right to do it now.
Thank you very much.
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!