School food programs should put needy students first in line: C.D. Howe Institute

A strategy targeting the most at-risk children is needed to get the most out of school nutrition programs, says a new report from the C.D. Howe Institute.


In “Health and Grades: Nutrition Programs for Kids in Canada”, authors Rosalie Wyonch and Abby Sullivan investigate the potential short and long-term impacts of student nutrition programs, including their relation to student performance and health, and whether a government-supported and universal national student nutrition program should be established for all Canadian children as compared to programs for children in communities at risk.

 The report finds the benefits of nutrition programs are most apparent in low-income and otherwise disadvantaged populations, including the estimated one in five Canadian children living in poverty (Source: and in a home that struggles to put food on the table (Source:


There is no consensus that they have clear benefits for all students.  “Instead of trying to implement a one-size-fits-all solution to the complex and nuanced policy problems to which nutrition programs have been linked,” say the authors. “More progress could be made by targeting different policies to specific goals. Given the significant cost of a national, universal student nutrition program – about $1.4 billion annually – the same resources likely could be used more effectively by targeting policies at the problems they are intended to solve.”

 The report concludes:

·         Among their positive effects, providing a healthy breakfast is an effective measure to improve academic performance and cognitive function among undernourished populations, however the long-term effects of eating breakfast on the performance of school children who do not have physical signs of undernourishment are less certain.

·         Scaling up a nutrition program that does not meet nutritional standards consistently or that suffers from systemic operational challenges would almost certainly be detrimental to its effects. Instead, the program should remain targeted at the most at-risk children, who are most likely to benefit, until it is functionally scalable.

·         To balance the need for universal access while also keeping the program targeted, priority should be given to schools in neighbourhoods with a high percentage of households on social assistance or with low incomes. If a school does have a nutrition program, it should be available to all children within the same class or grade, not restricted to children in need lest they be stigmatized.

“We’re encouraged by the various references to the positive effects of eating breakfast, especially for students at risk of going hungry,” says Shaun McKenna, Executive Director of The Grocery Foundation. “Hunger has no upsides. We all stand to benefit by a Canada that is True North, Strong and Fed and by supporting student nutrition programs struggling for sufficient and sustained funding.”


Read the Full Report (English)


Lire le rapport complet (Francais)

The C.D. Howe Institute is an independent not-for-profit research institute whose mission is to raise living standards by fostering economically sound public policies. Widely considered to be Canada’s most influential think tank, the Institute is a trusted source of essential policy intelligence, distinguished by research that is nonpartisan, evidence-based and subject to definitive expert review.

The Grocery Foundation, as a member and supporter of the C.D. Howe Institute and its unique brand of independent research, supported the Institute’s efforts to conduct data-driven analysis and provide recommendations on the use of school nutrition programs to improve educational performance and participation and to be able to clearly validate their impact to society from a health, social and economic perspective. The Institute is solely responsible for the paper’s contents.

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