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Health and Grades: Nutrition Programs for Kids in Canada

Rosalie Wyonch and Abby Sullivan
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Rosalie Wyonch: University of Calgary
Abby Sullivan: C.D. Howe Institute

C.D. Howe Institute Commentary, 2019, issue 532

Abstract: In many parts of Canada and around the globe, elementary and high-school students gain access to nutritious foods via school-based student nutrition programs. Funded by governments, corporations, foundations and the public, these programs are designed to ensure school-age children have access to the necessary nutrition they need to learn. Canada is the only G7 nation without a national student nutrition program. This Commentary investigates 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, including in targeted communities. It investigates the potential short- and long-term effects of student nutrition programs through rigorous assessment of available studies from Canada and other developed nations and analysis of the effects of a school nutrition program in Toronto. Although policies supporting student nutrition programs in some countries go back nearly a century, there is a rather surprising lack of consensus in existing research about their effects.* School nutrition programs have multiple objectives: ensure children consume enough quality energy, minimize the percentage of food-insecure children through free or subsidized meals and improve nutrition and overall health. How SNPs meet these objectives may put achieving individual goals at odds. With diverse objectives and disparate methodologies and metrics deployed to assess their impact, and with program structures differing from country-tocountry, the lack of consensus in the literature becomes understandable. These challenges and the paucity of credible evidence about the long-term effects of nutrition programs overall, led us to investigate the design of the programs themselves. The fundamental goal of school nutrition programs is to feed hungry children. There is quite strong evidence of the benefits of eating breakfast over not doing so, but evidence of the effect of breakfast programs in terms of wider goals of student performance and health is, mixed and inconclusive. Moreover, the success of any nutrition program depends on the logistics and execution of the program. These insights lead us to conclude that: • Providing a healthy breakfast is an effective measure to improve academic performance and cognitive functioning among undernourished populations. The long-term effects of eating breakfast on the performance of school children who do not have physical signs of severe undernourishment are less certain. • At the same time, there is a lack of statistically significant evidence that nutrition programs improve overall learning ability or school attendance in high-income countries. • There are persistent challenges in provisioning high-quality student nutrition programs, many of which stem from inconsistent access to the necessary resources. The temptation to expand a program to cover more students at the expense of improving the program for those already receiving it should be resisted. Scaling a nutrition program that does not meet nutritional standards consistently or that suffers from systemic operational challenges almost certainly would be of little benefit to students generally. 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 peer groups (classes or grades), not restricted to children in need.

Keywords: Health Policy; Education, Skills and Labour Market (search for similar items in EconPapers)
JEL-codes: I24 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2019
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