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This article was published 6/3/2020 (361 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Poverty continues to be a reality for far too many children in Manitoba. A recent report on child poverty, released by Campaign 2000, a non-partisan research and advocacy network focused on addressing child and family poverty, found Manitoba had the highest rate of child poverty in the country at 27.9 per cent. Quebec, in contrast had the lowest rate, at 15.2 per cent.
That depressing number masks striking regional disparity. For example: the child-poverty rate stood at 63.5 per cent in the federal riding of Churchill-Keewatinook Aski. Think about that. Winnipeg Centre, at 40.5 per cent, is also far above the national average.
One result of poverty is that children may not get enough to eat at home. A lack of proper nourishment introduces a host of other problems for kids; malnutrition in childhood can result in developmental and immunity issues that follow children well into adulthood. Charles Mueller, a professor of nutrition at New York University, argues, "If you have a kid who has been chronically malnourished in the first six months of their life, the damage that is done neurologically is lifelong."
Poverty may result in children going to school hungry. Once there, hunger affects students’ performance and behaviour. Children who go to school hungry are more likely to have low math scores and to repeat a grade. They’re also more likely to arrive at school late or miss school entirely. Hunger in childhood can have long-lasting health consequences, and it also can handicap kids’ performance in school and thus their overall life prospects.
One way to address the specific problem of poverty affecting children’s performance and behaviour at school is to provide school meals. Hot-breakfast programs can effectively reverse these problems. One can find many high-quality academic studies (primarily from the United States) that demonstrate such breakfast programs boost kids’ academic performance (especially in math), can result in fewer behavioural and psychological issues, and improve school attendance.
There are many possible ways for governments to alleviate poverty among children, but many of these measures address children indirectly via their parent or parents. School meal programs are different in that they are direct investments in children; if taxpayers want to invest directly and effectively into children’s well-being, then school meal programs are a good way to do so.
Last week, NDP Leader Wab Kinew called for a universal hot-breakfast program for all school-aged children in Manitoba, at a cost of $30 million per year. Kinew declared that under such a program, every child who needs a nutritious breakfast would receive one. The cost is based on the price tag attached to similar programs in other provinces, and seems reasonable.
It’s important to remember there are already meals and snacks provided to students in Manitoba schools. These result from a patchwork of programs and partnerships run by Manitoba Education, school boards and even individual students. Donations often help to fund these programs.
The problem with such a patchwork approach is that it’s not clear what proportion of kids receive meals or snacks. Many are undoubtedly falling between the cracks or not receiving the nutrition they need.
Kinew’s proposal is appealing precisely because of its commitment to universality and predictability: every kid who needs a breakfast will receive one.
Tory MLA James Teitsma criticized Kinew’s proposal, arguing that children benefit from eating breakfast with their families and that school breakfast programs will take kids away from their families. Teitsma cited studies which showed how kids benefit from spending time with family members, including during meal time. Premier Brian Pallister supported Teitsma’s argument this week, saying, "You don’t take the meal and give it to an institution and take it away from a single mom so she doesn’t get time with her child."
Teitsma and Pallister are correct that kids benefit enormously from eating meals with and otherwise spending time with family. And families that share meals together should continue to do so, no matter what meal programs are introduced. But this will be little comfort to children living in poverty who go to school hungry every day.
It simply isn’t clear how providing school meals will compel parents to stop spending time with their kids; indeed, the opposite is more likely the case. Transfers to low-income families, such as breakfast programs, can lighten the load on these families, boosting the time available for children and parents to be together.
If Pallister is so concerned about this, then he should look at ways to ensure low-income children are fed, without requiring parents to grind through yet another part-time job that takes them out of the home and away from their kids.
Children don’t choose to be poor, and they shouldn’t suffer the often-lifelong educational consequences of poverty. Hot-breakfast programs in Manitoba schools could go a long way toward ensuring our children do not suffer those consequences.
Royce Koop is an associate professor and head of the political studies department at the University of Manitoba.