In this conversation, the Coordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Food in Canada, Debbie Field, urges supporters of school meals to strengthen collaboration to support the government’s commitment to put in place a sustainable school meals model and get all children to receive a nutritious meal in school right away.


Q: The recent announcement by the Government of Canada, that it will invest CAD$ 1 billion (US$ 738 million) to launch a national school food programme came after many years of advocating for this development. Tell us about the work the Coalition for Healthy School Food in Canada has been driving for close to a decade?

Children enjoy their school lunch meal at a school in Canada. An additional 400,000 children are expected to receive school meals following President Justin Trudeau’s commitment to allocate funds to establish a national school food programme in Canada this year. © OCIC/Alan Lissner in partnership with Eel Ground First Nation and Canadian Feed the Children.


Debbie: The announcement is a significant development for us and other organisations as well. Changing a political position requires many players to collaborate and can take many years. We launched almost 10 years ago, as a Coalition of 23 groups, including indigenous leaders, and this built our history in a good way. Members of the Coalition are non-governmental organisations providing breakfast, lunches, and snacks in various schools, but we also have on board national organisations such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation. The private sector is not involved as members or endorsers, though we know they will play an important role as school food program delivery is not completely possible without them. To guide the Coalition work, we have developed eight principles (French version) And when we look back, it’s interesting to see that in our first meeting, we were asking for a CAD $ 1 billion investment in school meals, which came a decade later.


Over the years, we have built a large tent of like-minded groups, and the Coalition now hosts 303 member organisations, working through a governance model that gives members the mandate to make decisions and the 144 endorsers who are either government agencies or non-profits.
Our work is driven by advocacy and our strategy has been to regularly invite members of parliament to see and learn from school meal initiatives. Canada has waited so long to have a national programme, and this was because of jurisdictional issues that pushed back the idea and there were different views in and outside the political space. One group argued that school meals was not a national issue but a provincial and territorial matter, while other groups said it was a parental responsibility and that charities were taking care of it and so there was no need for a social policy.

Q: Can you explain what exactly did the Government of Canada announce, this is a breakthrough but what does this mean for the school meals landscape in Canada?

Debbie: I will start from the beginning by saying that the Coalition is non-partisan, so we work with all political parties. In the run up to the last election we tried to get all the political parties to include school meals in their platforms and manifestos. The big breakthrough is that there was a promise by the Liberal Party when they were running for re-election; they committed CAD$ 1 billion to school meals over a period of five years. On the other hand, the New Democratic Party committed CAD$ 1 billion over a period of four years. With this significant progress, we kept pushing, discussing with supporters of school meals in parliament. We were able to convince the government, the Liberal Party, to put their promise in “Mandate Letters” to ensure this was a commitment they would fulfil.

However, the promise was not fulfilled during the national budgets of 2022 and 2023, mainly due to the political context. It happened that between August 2023 and the time of the school meals budget announcement, factors significant to school meals took centre stage. These, I believe, contributed to the decision by the Government. There was high food inflation, and a new report from Amberley Ruetz, a key interlocutor on Canadian school food research to the Research Consortium for School Health and Nutrition, an Initiative of the School Meals Coalition, and other pieces of evidence, particularly by Swedish researchers, that highlighted the massive benefits of school meal programmes. These returns included having healthier students and more productive adults in the future, higher lifetime earnings and in particular, a high rate of women’s participation in the economy which went up by 5 percent in Sweden. This sparked the attention of the Minister of Finance, Hon. Chrystia Freeland, a strong advocate of childcare, which she refers to as an economic lever. The Government was finally convinced that a national school food programme is a good initiative and committed the CAD $ 1 billion. The landscape has changed, we need to get all provinces and territories to quickly sign agreements to receive federal funding. Though the Government has taken a bold step, the funding is currently not going to be enough, and we are already preparing next year’s advocacy to request more funding for school meals.

There are indications that the Government will roll out CAD$ 79 million this year to start having some ability to talk about a national programme. The fact is, it’s not yet a national programme and certainly not a universal one yet. It would be interesting to follow the Canadian process, perhaps have a case study documenting the establishment of a school meals programme in an OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) country in the G7, which has not happened in many decades.

Many actors in school meals look to an article that details the three stages of school meal programmes, which are the “Welfare Stage”, which was about all the school food programmes until in the 1950s and then transitioned into the “Quality of Food Stage” which ran through the 1970s and 80s and in the 90s, we moved into the “Systems Change Stage”, that talks about sustainable programmes, agriculture, and food literacy. But then what happens when a country comes in at that third stage, with the money of a welfare commitment? How do we learn from other countries? We are asking ourselves how we can create the best programme that is also community-based. We did not have the federal government and our provincial funding when we started, and a lot of us learned to create programmes in neighbourhoods, getting money from wherever, from the local dry cleaner, parent contributions and other places and eventually cities, provinces, and territories and now the federal government. With these changes, can we make a very localised programme because school meals currently provided are being served through different initiatives? How then do we, for example, serve halal products in downtown Toronto and moose in a first nations community? These are discussions we need to have and it’s exciting for the world to watch Canada implement its national programme.

Q: The Coalition for Healthy Food joined the School Meals Coalition much earlier before the Government of Canada joined. What role would you say the global Coalition played to push the school meals agenda in Canada?


Some of the many women working as cooks in school meal initiatives in Canada. Around the world, for every 100,000 children fed, a total of 1,377 jobs are created, most of them benefitting women. © OCIC/Alan Lissner in partnership with Eel Ground First Nation and Canadian Feed the Children.


Debbie: I think the School Meals Coalition made a real difference in changing perspectives about school meals in Canada because it showcased Governments coming together and realising the importance of national school meal programmes particularly in the early stages of the world trying to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. In our advocacy engagement we relied on information that the School Meals Coalition was sharing. We quoted statistics and narratives that highlighted school meals as an essential service helping children to return and stay in school, address malnutrition, and generate longer-term benefits across many sectors. It helped build a strong case and more so because France and other G7 countries were playing a leading role in showing that school meals are critically important. Having France play a leading role in the School Meals Coalition, when we have Quebec, a French speaking nation inside Canada, had an impact and received some attention.

Q: Can you share some key messages for various partners you are working with in Canada, looking at the next steps?

Debbie: Firstly, school food is about the health and wellbeing of all children, and we want universal health-based messages that understand that those children from low-income communities will be supported by a great programme, so all children in Canada will eat without stigma. Secondly, there are multiple benefits of a national school food programme, and I would like to express my respect for Brazil, which has ensured that their national school meals programme promotes local farmers through the 30 percent local purchasing provision in their school meals legislation. Canada has a great relationship with Brazil and many of us have travelled there to learn from their success story. Lastly, I would like to emphasise flexibility, looking at the many school meal models around the world to make sure we get all the kids in Canada eating right away.