Photo credits: Pharyne Hrywkiw
Today we have increased knowledge and awareness surrounding healthy eating and nutrition; however, our kids are not receiving a passing grade when it comes to their daily dietary intake. In recent years there has been more research findings reaching the public stating that Canadian school-aged children are receiving a failing grade when it comes to their nutritional status. This statistic is quite alarming for a developed nation with countless resources. So why are school-aged kids insufficient in key nutrients in a country that is recognized globally as plentiful? While moving to an A+ is not impossible, it certainly does not happen overnight. There are several moving pieces and specific people who need to work together in order to achieve this goal. We must move from policy to practice, from preaching to preventing, from saying to actually doing…Though I do not have kids of my own yet, I do not think I am incorrect in stating that all parents want what is best for their children. That is a statement every single parent can agree upon. Plus, it is hard to argue against the fact that children are a product of their environment (home, school, community etc.) whether we wish to believe this or not.
A 2004 research study done out of the University of British Columbia did “an analysis of what nearly 5,000 Canadian students between the ages of six and 17 said they ate and drank while in school”.1 These students “scored an average of 53.4 out of 100 points.”1 “Research has found that Canadian kids don’t eat enough fruits, vegetables and dairy during school hours.”5 Within these hours “children consumed around one-third of their daily calories.”1 Now when we stop to think about how much time each day, each week/month/year that kids spend at school we quickly realize this is a major issue to tackle.
There must be more emphasis on this topic as a current problem. As well, importance placed on the impact of our futures if not improved. The risk of chronic disease sky rockets when key nutrient levels are continually sitting at such low levels. As a nutrition educator with FoodImpact Inc, I can firmly say that healthy food has the incredible ability to counteract long-term health consequences. Good, or even great nutrition standing is achievable through food. We can prevent so many health challenges down the road by eating a cleaner, whole food diet that is both balanced, filled with variety, and practiced with moderation. You truly are what you eat. The saying “we are what we eat” rings true when we analyze health data and medical results over the course of an individuals’ lifetime. “A healthful diet promotes the normal growth and development of children, and helps prevent the development of obesity and related chronic diseases as they age.”2 “Childhood obesity rates in Canada have tripled since 1980, and today, nearly one third of Canadians aged six to 17 [are] overweight or obese.”3 “Statistics Canada says close to one third – 31.5 percent –…were classified as overweight or obese between 2009 to 2011.”4 Flash forward a few more years to 2018 and we are not doing any better in this department.
School-aged children are lacking in significant nutrients found mainly in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and milk products (including plant-based alternatives).1 Take for example the fact that children should be aiming to eat at least a minimum of five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. “Fewer than one in 10 Canadian children and youth”6 are reaching this recommendation. Thus, when a child’s diet is lacking in these types of foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and milk products) they are without a doubt deficient in the following nutrients: vitamins A, D, B12, calcium, fiber, protein, and magnesium.1
In our society most children would likely say that they find a bag of potato chips much more appetizing than an apple. I have even witnessed on multiple occasions in the classroom children trading their ‘healthy’ snacks for packaged high sugar/salt/fat filled junk foods. “Researchers found that intake of less nutritious food, like sugary beverages, candy, and salty snacks spiked during school hours.”1 Why is this? Well once children are old enough to attend school their parents/guardians have much less control and say over what their kids eat; there is a newfound sense of autonomy inherited. They can only hope that their child will eat what is packed for them in their lunchbox. However, when they reach the age where their parents are no longer packing their lunches this becomes an even larger problem. Pre-adolescents and adolescents now have even more freedom to make their own decisions on what goes into their bodies. This explains why when analyzing the data from the 2004 UBC study mentioned above, elementary aged children scored very low and secondary school students scored even lower overall.7 Therefore, not receiving a ‘passing grade’ for the dietary nutrient levels. In order for Canadian students to gain a passing grade the UBC research study used “11 key components, including nutrients, food groups and calories consumed”1 to conclude standing.
To get the ball rolling more quickly towards improved nutrition results for our kids we need to equip them properly. When our kids are equipped with the appropriate healthy foods, knowledge, and self-efficacy to make healthier decisions the positive benefits are never ending. The physical rewards are limitless, mental and emotional states vastly improve, social facets are more encouraging, and students have higher academic performance.6 Provincial and Federal governments, school boards, parents, teachers, and health practitioners all have the moral duty as well as the opportunity to do more for our children. There are ways to improve the dietary nutrient levels, but this will only happen when policies are put in to place; there is implementation and then adherence. Actions speak larger than words. Below are some suggestions for each sub-group to improve children’s nutrition grades in Canada.
Governments: Both levels have the capacity and platform to bring change to the nutrition that students receive in the school setting. The concept of food insecurity is tied to this. “Insufficient access to affordable and nutritious foods”6 is a major obstacle. There needs to be better access to healthy food; healthy food needs to be readily available and at an affordable price for the majority of the population. Buying fresh fruits and vegetables should never have to cost ‘an arm and a leg’. When it comes ‘food policy’…policy makers in government need to put actual laws into place that will help provide high-quality, affordable and nutritious food for all. Without our health what else truly matters. Tax payers will just be paying more in the long-run to help support the ever-increasing (preventable) healthcare costs.
Some provinces are making great strides. “Over the past 12 years, six provinces have banned junk food from schools” In 2005, “New Brunswick became the first province to impose a junk food ban inside its schools”, followed by Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Quebec, British Columbia, and Ontario.”4 Where is Alberta on this list?...
Furthermore, across the country there needs to be “tighter rules on advertising junk food to kids” on television, social media outlets, online, print press etc. Kids today are more tech-savvy than ever before and almost all own a cellphone with exposure to billions of untailored advertisements. Currently “in Canada, only Quebec has restrictions on the marketing of food to children.”3
School Boards: These groups play a very important role in changing the current status of children’s nutrition in the school system. We know that the introduction of new initiatives is a possible cause we have seen them in the past. There are many school cafeterias now serving healthier options, vending machines no longer containing junk foods and soda pop, and hot lunch programs have been partnering up with healthier food companies/restaurants. This influential group must place higher value on health and nutrition when allocating the annual budgets.
Parents and Teachers: At the end of the day, parents and teachers are the most important voice. These special individuals are the day-to-day contact person for our children. With this relationship comes great responsibility. Parents need to pack healthier lunches and snacks for their children to take to school. Start the conversation of healthy food in the household as soon as possible. In addition, grocery shopping and cooking meals together can help your child take a greater interest in how they are nourishing their bodies.
As for teachers I am aware that it is impossible to control the environment at a student’s home, so leading by example in the classroom will speak volumes. Maybe teachers find non-food related rewards for their students and ways of celebrating special occasions that do not include eating junk foods. Building healthy eating and other nutrition-related topics into the Health or Science curriculum is also an option. Teachers could also extend the learning opportunities by having a nutrition professional come present to their students.
Health Professionals: Providing better education related to health and nutrition is imperative. These messages need to be clear and expert-based. Nutrition Educators, Dietitians, Public Health Nurses are just a couple of qualified authorities to teach your children about improving their health. “Schools have long been recognized as good places for health interventions for kids and ways of promoting health.”7
FoodImpact is a Nutrition Education company that goes into schools across Alberta teaching students of all grade levels. They aim to impact children’s nutrition through educational presentations and hands-on workshops. Within these sessions children are taught the importance of making lifelong healthy eating choices, what a healthy diet looks like, Canada’s Food Guide explanation, developing critical thinking skills when making food choices and so many more topics. As well, FoodImpact values the concept of partnering up with like-minded, health-minded companies who generously provide complimentary healthy food items for each child to try. Some of this year’s partnerships include Byblos Bakery’s whole wheat pitas (great source of whole grains), WowButter (plant-based protein option for nut-free environments), Organic Box for fresh fruits and vegetables, and KIND Pressed Fruit and Vegetable bars (which are packed with fiber, vitamins and minerals). We send the kids home with these food samples to make their own healthy snacks, with the hopes they share their newfound knowledge with their family members. This trickle effect has been proven to be very effective and far-reaching.
“According to a recent UNICEF report, Canada ranks 37 out of 41 countries in providing access to nutritious food for children.”6 I hope this blog article acts as a reminder to place more importance of the type of food school-aged children are eating day-to-day. Wholesome nutrition lays the foundation for their entire lives. In Canada we are fortunate to have the resources, knowledge and care to make a difference. I urge you all to not only strive for a passing grade but a level of excellence for our kids. The future of tomorrow deserves the best from us.
1. CTV News: https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/canadian-kids-eating-more-junk-food-less-nutritious-meals-during-school-hours-study-1.3557611
2. Government of Canada – Health Canada (2012): https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/food-nutrition-surveillance/health-nutrition-surveys/canadian-community-health-survey-cchs/canadian-adolescents-meet-their-nutrient-requirements-through-food-intake-alone-health-canada-2012.html
3. CTV News: https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/health-canada-takes-aim-at-junk-food-ads-targeting-kids-1.3453159
.4. CBC News: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/nb-junk-food-ban-study-1.4177295
5. Today’s Parent: https://www.todaysparent.com/kids/kids-health/kids-arent-getting-enough-fruits-and-veggies-in-school-lunches/?fbclid=IwAR11lbwPEhrdDCf3j6F20M1ZHgzMBXPovSJ2LzryW53WhRqv26LuOy-kDaw
6. MacLean’s – Education: https://www.macleans.ca/society/health/why-canada-needs-a-national-school-food-program/
7. Global News – Health: https://globalnews.ca/news/3690944/canadian-school-meals-nutrition-study/
Nutrition Educator, FoodImpact Inc
B.Sc. Nutrition and Food Sciences