Federal Industry Minister James Moore caused a firestorm of controversy on Sunday with comments concerning child hunger in Canada, in which he appeared to negatively reference school food programs. "Certainly we want to make sure that kids go to school full-bellied," Moore said. "But is that always the government's job to be there to serve people their breakfast?"
To this Moore added: "Is it my job to feed my neighbour's child? I don't think so." Moore argued that responsibility for feeding children should rest with parents rather than schools, and that the role of government was to empower parents to do so.
Moore Monday apologized for his remarks, but I have a few comments to make about his sentiments about hungry kids.
Child hunger is a pressing problem, by which I mean it is a problem that affects society as a whole, and it needs public-policy solutions. Indeed, what is government good for if not to help ensure kids are getting the best possible start in life?
A recent report from the Conference Board of Canada estimates that roughly two million Canadians cannot always obtain nutritious food. Nearly half of them are children.
Child hunger has long-term consequences for both physical and mental health. Perhaps the most important problems relate to learning and development. Hungry children encounter obstacles to both learning and development nourished children do not. Studies demonstrate over and over again the consequences of hunger for both the behaviour and learning patterns of children. One meta-analysis (a combination of the results of studies) found that a lack of nourishment was related to decreased school attendance, poor learning outcomes and, accordingly, diminished academic achievement.
How best for schools to address the lack of nourishment? Hot breakfast and lunch programs, free of charge to students, are one answer. They take a variety of forms and may include the provision of milk, breakfast, snacks or lunch. Such programs have been instituted in a wide variety of jurisdictions for several decades; we therefore have available to us a treasure trove of data on the effects of such programs.
Not surprisingly, the outcomes associated with hot breakfast and lunch programs are resoundingly positive. One study, for example, found school breakfast programs are related to increased attendance; enhanced alertness and energy; better comprehension and memory; and, thus, better academic performance including in math and reading tests. A hot breakfast was associated in another study with a decrease in learning and behaviour disorders.
Anecdotally, it is teachers and school administrators who are best placed to speak to both the positive outcomes of hot lunch programs and the heartbreaking home conditions that lead to their necessity. Hal Wall, the principal of a Burnaby, B.C., elementary school, overheard one student express to another excitement about school starting again since she would soon begin getting lunch. A media report indicates some teachers buy granola bars to pass out to students in the morning, so stark are the differences between a nourished and ill-nourished classroom.
Manitoba, like other provinces, has experimented with school food programs. The 2009 Manitoba School Nutrition Survey found roughly half of all Manitoba schools offer milk programs or breakfast programs, whereas 30 per cent offer snack programs and only 14 per cent offer lunch programs. Funding remains an issue: Schools often report having to cobble together funding from several sources, including donations. Most disturbingly, 22 per cent of schools with these programs relied to some extent on fees collected from the students themselves, meaning students without enough money would not receive a hot breakfast.
I believe involving governments in problems can often produce worse outcomes than leaving them to private-sector actors to address. But this is not the case with the issue of child hunger in Canada. There is no longer a shred of doubt that the institution of reliably funded school food programs in provinces such as Manitoba would quickly produce dramatic positive learning and development outcomes.
While Moore has been pilloried for his statement, one positive consequence may be that more Canadians learn about the effects of these simple and cost-effective programs and call on their governments to institute them.
Royce Koop is an assistant professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba.