Top Marks for School Nutrition Model

There is a growing cross-Canada movement to expand school nutrition programs, with everyone from doctors and nurses to food producers, indigenous leaders and anti-poverty advocates adding their voices. (Source: The Coalition for Healthy School Food. )

Now a new study by the C.D. Howe Institute suggests the strategy should target the most at-risk students. (Source: C.D. Howe Institute. “School food programs should put needy students first in line: C.D. Howe Institute.” February 12, 2019.)

This is just the model being used at United Way’s All In For Youth schools in Edmonton, thanks to powerful partnerships between service delivery agencies, funders and school boards.

The e4c School Nutrition Program presented by Edmonton Civic Employees Charitable Assistance Fund (ECECAF) is available at five inner-city schools as one of the wrap-around supports provided to students and their families through All In For Youth.

The C. D. Howe research indicates that students who take part in school nutrition programs have better attendance and improved math scores. The impact is highest for students from economically vulnerable families. Researchers determined school nutrition programs are an “effective measure to improve academic performance and cognitive function among undernourished populations.”

At Edmonton’s Spruce Avenue Junior High School, just north of downtown, the entire student population of 264 children is invited to participate in the nutrition program. This fits with the C.D. Howe Institute recommendation that “if a school does have a nutrition program, it should be available to all children within the same class or grade, not restricted to children in need lest they be stigmatized.”

Bowls of fruit are set out in the hallway each morning at Spruce Avenue School, so students can help themselves on their way into class. Yogurt is available for a morning snack. Lunch includes a rotating menu of freshly made sandwiches with vegetarian options. After-school student clubs and sports teams have access to homemade trail mix and fruit.

Teachers and All In For Youth staff see a positive influence on student behaviour and performance. “Our most important outcomes for the children and youth participating in our school nutrition programs are that they improve their ability to fully participate in their school day,” reports e4c. “Full participation in the school day leads to increased school attendance, academic performance and a decrease in behaviour incidents. Another important outcome is for students to increase their knowledge of healthy eating and healthy choices.” (Source: e4c. 2017 Common Outcomes Report. )

“It makes a huge impact if they know they are going to have enough to eat,” declares Tamara Kelly, e4c Nutrition Support Worker at Spruce Avenue School. “The students don’t have to worry that other kids will make fun of them for what they have – or don’t have – in their lunch boxes.”

Kelly describes one Grade 5 student, Megan*, whose mother was struggling financially after a marriage breakup.  “Megan would come knock on the door as soon as she knew we were there, to ask for a yogurt or a piece of fruit, because there just wasn’t a lot of food at home. The food bank only helps so much. Mum was going without food because she was worried that her two kids were going to go without if she ate. So we did little hampers up for them.”

Now Megan is in Grade 7 and things are more stable at home. Megan volunteers in the school kitchen, helping to serve meals and encouraging other kids not to make a mess.

“She’s doing great. Between the nutrition support and the other All In For Youth supports, she had somebody to talk to, somebody that was willing to feed her whenever she needed it,” says Kelly. “Her teachers are saying how great she is in class. She’s helping other students.”

“Nutrition plays a huge role for happy, healthy, successful kids,” concludes Kelly. “They can focus on what they’re supposed to do when they’re well fed. “

*Name changed to protect privacy

Our most important outcomes for the children and youth participating in our school nutrition programs are that they improve their ability to fully participate in their school day.