Good for Toronto MP Olivia Chow. She’s leading a new initiative for affordable food for school kids. And while she needs to put some meat on the bones of her plan, which was unveiled last week at a news conference in Ottawa, she’s covered some important areas, including who’ll grow the food.
Now, it’s time to connect the dots.
Chow calls this venture the Children’s Healthy Nutrition Initiative. It’s meant to address the woeful state of childhood nutrition in Canada, by instituting a nationwide nutritious food program that would make breakfast, snacks or lunch available to any Canadian child 18 years old or less.
That’s a mammoth undertaking, and it’s costly, no question. She’s campaigning for a five-year program that would cost the federal government $1.25 billion a year at the end of five years.
Note the word campaigning. Her New Democrats are not in power and she can’t arbitrarily launch anything, let alone spend a ton of government money.
But her timing is strategic. The federal Standing Committee of Health will soon report to Parliament on children’s obesity, and you can bet the report will be shocking. The percentage of overweight children tripled in Canada between 1981 and 2002 to 25 per cent, with nearly half of them considered obese. There’s no reason to think the new report will be any better. Chow thinks the issue could be debated in the house this spring, and when the government decides on action, she wants her plan to get a look.
There are at least a couple of good things about her prospective initiative, things the feds can embrace.
First, it has the potential to feed hungry kids good food. Chow, who helped launch a similar program in Toronto, is dead set against junk food and advertising aimed at children. She calls sales pitches to kids “manipulative marketing messages.” Her new initiative is meant specifically to ensure fruit and vegetables are a part of kids’ diets.
Second, she wants local foods incorporated into the program. Some will be locally sourced rather than locally grown, she admits, because the variety of fresh food in Canada is limited in the winter. But she’s not deterred. After the news conference she told me she thinks this could be a wonderful initiative for farmers who can service their local areas. It will take some organizational and logistical efforts by farmers and school boards. But the bottom line is that the farmers have the food, the kids need it, and the feds might be willing to help pay for it — initially, she suggests the program pay 30 per cent of the cost of the meals.
And she also admits it won’t all be fresh food. For example, it might be canned. But so what? If it’s local farmers’ food preserved in a healthy way — without too much salt or oil — it’s still local farmers’ food. And that’s good for agriculture.
Chow likes the fact that locally produced food contributes to environmental sustainability. Food transported across the continent by fuel-guzzling vehicles has environmental baggage. And freshness is always a challenge. Why, she wonders, would someone eat imported apples or tomatoes when they could get domestic produce here, where regulated growing practices are transparent and freshness is less likely to be compromised?
An initiative to prompt more local produce sales across Canada can have a significant ripple effect. Potentially, it can promote research into new varieties for greater selection, it can prompt new recipe development and marketing and, perhaps most important, it can create a greater understanding and connection between farmers and consumers.
As with many new initiatives, other models exist to draw from, some over the international border — the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a partnership between former U.S. president Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association — and some right within our own province. Here, in 2004, the Ontario Student Nutrition Program and the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers teamed up with the Windsor-Essex and Toronto District school boards to create a pilot school nutrition program called Healthy Hearts, Healthy Minds. That project offered Ontario-grown greenhouse vegetables — cherry tomatoes and mini cucumbers — to elementary school children as snacks, giving them a midday nutritional boost that’s healthier than high-sugar or high-sodium snacks.
And coming from greenhouses meant it’s available all year.
It was expensive, though. The average cost of providing greenhouse vegetables in this case was almost 10 times more expensive than other nutrition programs. But kids loved it, and bought in.
Kids also love stars, and that’s what Chow needs now to sell the program to them. The food-health connectivity is missing from this initiative — the U.S. program secured Seattle Seahawks’ star Shaun Alexander as its spokesperson. Further, the agriculture-food-health triangle needs to become part of the program’s very foundation.
However, it’s a start. And it could be an important chance for farmers. Most aren’t traditional NDP supporters. But neither are they marketing to local schools and building alliances, which they could be if this program or an amended version of it goes forward.
After all, things change. And for the sake of children’s health and her party’s standing, Chow hopes they will.
Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.