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Motion 358 Nutrition Program

Excerpt from Debates of the Senate (Hansard)
Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Senate

Motion to Urge the Government to Initiate Consultations with Various Groups to Develop an Adequately Funded National Cost-shared Universal Nutrition Program—Debate Continued

On the Order:
Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator Eggleton, P.C., seconded by the Honourable Senator Mercer:

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.

Hon. Marty Deacon: Honourable senators, this afternoon I’m truly reminded of so many senators doing such important and complex work each and every day.
I rise today to speak to Motion 358 concerning the development of a universal nutrition program for our youth.
As you might recall, it was our former colleague Senator Eggleton who introduced this motion. In light of his retirement, he asked if I could see this through, and I was more than happy to accept, as this is a goal I believe in.
Over the past 15 years, I have worked directly with community partners in ensuring all young learners have a nutritious breakfast in my home community. There are tremendous learnings, and this deep need continues.
For those who were not yet with us in the Senate, I encourage you to go back and read Senator Eggleton’s speech from last year, on June 14.
I’m sure even those senators who were here could use a bit of a reminder. Motion 358 states:
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.
I have to say that the timing of this motion could not be more appropriate. Just last month, as you know, the federal government unveiled its revamped Canada’s Food Guide. This guide is unbiased and evidence-based, and it puts the health of Canadians first.
The next and more important step is seeing to it that those recommended foods actually make it onto our plates. This requires cultivating healthy eating habits, and what better place to start than with our young Canadians? This is where a universal youth nutrition program can make such a change, a change that is sorely needed.

In 2015, it was reported that over a quarter of Canadian adults were obese. The following year, we were told that 48,000 deaths in Canada could be attributed to poor nutrition. This outpaces the combined number of deaths that could be attributed to tobacco and alcohol from that same year.

These worrying numbers are compounded when we look at the statistics of our youth. According to a 2016 study done by the Senate Social Affairs Committee, 13 per cent of Canadian children are obese, and a further 20 per cent are overweight. The Childhood Obesity Foundation estimates that if current trends hold, up to 70 per cent of Canadian adults aged 40 and over will be overweight in two decades’ time. In addition to burdening individual health, this will have a great burden on our health care system.

It’s easy to see how we got to these discouraging statistics. Ideally, all Canadian families would have the time and resources to provide their children with healthy meals throughout the day, but we know that for many that is simply not the case. It’s easy for parents who both work and are pressed for time to pack prepackaged lunches for their kids or to let them skip meals entirely. They might give their kids money to purchase food at the cafeteria, where all too often unhealthy options make up most of the menu. It’s an unfortunate reality that often the cheapest, most convenient foods are also the unhealthiest.

There is also, of course, a large cohort of Canadian families who simply can’t afford to feed their kids the kind of nutritious food they need to grow into healthy adults. Food Banks Canada reports that in March 2018, over just one month, there were 1.1 million visits to their locations nationwide. Children accounted for 35 per cent of these visitors, despite making up only 20 per cent of the Canadian population.

Nor do these stats compare well with our international peers. In 2017, UNICEF reported that Canada ranked thirty-seventh out of 41 countries when it came to juvenile access to nutritious food. It’s inconceivable that in a country as rich and prosperous as ours, some children do not have access to sufficient nutrition.

Not having access to nutritious food at such young age can have repercussions that last long into adulthood. A 2015 Harvard study showed that children who receive a healthy breakfast perform better at school than those who do not. We also observed this first-hand locally and across this country. We know that a child’s brain is much more vulnerable than an adult’s when it comes to missing a meal. At this young age, the brain is changing quickly. Nerve cells are growing, and cell connections are adjusting rapidly in response to their immediate environment. All of this increases the brain’s demand for energy. As a result, those children without access to adequate healthy calories have a harder time learning.

When I recall our rigorous debate over legalization of cannabis a year ago, there was a lot of warranted trepidation about how cannabis use could affect cognitive function in our young Canadians. Should we not share these same concerns about the huge cohort of Canadian kids who do not receive adequate nutrition day in and day out? If we are worried about giving Canadian children the best chance to succeed, it’s incumbent on all of us to see they are adequately fed with nutritious calories at this critical juncture in their development.
This is where a universal youth nutrition program can make such a difference. A number of international peers have already accepted this fact. Similar programs have been established in countries like Finland, Brazil and the U.K., as well as American cities such as New York and Los Angeles.

Here at home, the impetus for such a program is picking up steam. In 2018, the University of Calgary held a public conference and examined the public health risks of bad eating habits and looked at potential policies that could change and reverse the current trends. In the resulting Calgary statement, participants called for a public approach that would ensure Canadian children have access to nutritious food in places where they learn and play.

We are also seeing solid policy as well. The Alberta government committed $15.5 million to its targeted school nutrition program for elementary students for the 2018-19 school year. What started as a pilot program just two years ago has already demonstrated its usefulness and alleviated some pressures on Albertan families when it comes to preparing meals for their children.

The federal action this motion calls for would encourage other jurisdictions to initiate their own pilot programs. It would likely expand efforts already under way as well, confident they have the backing of their national government. I am very proud of the work led by Nutrition for Learning in my home community. This started with a very small project and now supports all students.
Colleagues, be it as an educator, a coach and now as a senator, I have dedicated my life to promoting a healthy lifestyle. While this entails a number of things, the three most important are always exercise, healthy diet and rest. This is important for adults, but it goes doubly for our youth.

As legislators, we are perfectly placed to — forgive the pun — tip the scales in favour of a healthy future. Health Canada is still rolling out its national healthy eating strategy. Policies are being settled on, and it’s clear to me that a national cost-shared universal youth nutrition program would be, could be and should be an integral part of this strategy.
That is why I urge this chamber to move quickly in support of Senator Eggleton’s motion. We have to send the message to the federal government that simply showing what a healthy diet looks like does not solve our problem. We need to get that food onto our plates. We need to learn from other countries and lead now. We need to explore the potential of a universal nutrition program for our young Canadians. Thank you.

Hon. Stan Kutcher: Thank you very much for that. Healthy nutrition is foundational for the growth and development of children and solid efforts need to be directed so that every Canadian child can benefit from this.

This motion, as you present it, sounds like a school-based issue which should be of deep concern to provinces and municipalities. What role should the federal government play in moving this forward?

Senator M. Deacon: Thank you for your question. This motion is not all about money. The federal government could play and needs to play a key leadership role in the establishment of national principles as a condition for cost-shared funding. These national principles would help to provide consistency and opportunity across the country. Some of the things in these national principles could include food quality guidelines, such as adhering to and respecting the new Canada’s Food Guide, conflict of interest for standards and for program governance, may include local food purchasing targets and food literacy programs. This could be determined, but the federal piece is the responsibility for pulling and leading our provinces and territories.

The Hon. the Speaker: Senator Ravalia, question or on debate?

Hon. Mohamed-Iqbal Ravalia: A question, please. Senator Deacon, you mentioned that there are a number of countries that have an established nutrition program. Would you be able to give us some examples of these programs and their outcomes?

Senator M. Deacon: Yes, thank you. I would be happy to respond. Thank you for the question. It was significant learning.

Some examples, Brazil has a program that they have had in place since 1954 that currently covers 45 million students. In 2009, Brazil placed an emphasis, which is also a great thing, on their small-scale farming operations by legislating that 30 per cent of the food provided must be locally sourced, which also helped with their work.

The United States, you may very well know, has a National School Lunch Act and a Child Nutrition Act. Both are administered at the federal level by the United States Department of Agriculture and at the state level by state agencies. In the U.S. there are also examples of cities that have gone through and made their own universal program. For example, New York City in 2017 began offering free lunches to all of its 1.1 million students.

In the United Kingdom, the national government pays 2.30 pounds for each eligible meal served as part of their Universal Infant Free School Meals program for students aged two to seven, giving them a great start. Equally notable, just recently the U.K. implemented a strategy of directing revenue from sugar-sweetened soft drinks as a levy to help fund school food programs.
Finland is probably the most noted. They have something called a Basic Education Act. It sees to it that students attending school must be provided with a properly organized and supervised meal. This country, Finland, has been doing this in that mode since 1943.

(On motion of Senator Martin, debate adjourned.)