With schools opening up after months of COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions, school boards and administrators are facing many challenges including how best to safely provide students with important school food programs. Confronted with having to adhere to new COVID-19 requirements, some schools have developed innovative ways to serve food, while other schools have programs that are in jeopardy due to a lack of resources and volunteers.

School Food Programs Essential for Many Families

A Statistics Canada survey from May 2020 revealed that Canadians living in a household with children faced a higher rate of food insecurity (19.2%) than those without children (12.2%). Those living with children were more likely to be worried about their ability to afford balanced meals.

As revealed in a CBC report last March, many low-income families depend on schools for regular meals and snacks. This creates worries not only for families whose children are now learning from home, but also for those whose children who will be attending schools. Many schools have yet to release specific COVID-19 protocols regarding their school food programs and have warned parents that school closures may be necessary in the coming months.

Sylvia Black, a registered dietitian in Toronto, and a member of Farmwork to Feed Canada adds, “Not only are school food programs an important source of food for kids living in food-insecure households, but they’re also beneficial for kids who just might not have the time or appetite to eat breakfast before leaving for school. They then get hungry later in the morning. These programs can also provide a really good opportunity for kids to learn about nutritious and sustainable food choices.”


School Boards Initiating New Rules and Regulations for Food Programs

All schools and school cafeterias in Canada must follow COVID-19 health guidelines. Students must wash their hands before eating and food must not be shared. They must also bring filled water bottles to school to avoid drinking from water fountains. Meal and break times should be staggered, and children should be placed in cohorts.

 In addition to the basic guidelines, schools across the country have developed new rules and programs for dealing with food distribution during the pandemic. For example, in Alberta, Edmonton Public School’s Division Re-entry Strategy states that there will be no potlucks, barbecues, or special lunch days, and treats cannot be brought or handed out by students or teachers for special events such as birthdays.

According to Nova Scotia’s Back-to-School Plan, buffet-style dining is not permitted, nor can children be involved in preparing or serving food. Cafeterias and school food programs will deliver food to students’ classrooms.

The Toronto District School Board in Ontario states that food programs should only serve pre-packaged meals with single-use cutlery and dishes.

A parent in Niagara, Ontario, shares that her children’s school operates a breakfast club, available to all students. Typically, parent volunteers prepare the food and students eat breakfast in the cafeteria right before classes begin. There are different meals on different days, including cold cereal, instant oatmeal, as well as cheese, apple slices and crackers. On Thursdays, they have a hot meal such as scrambled eggs, pancakes, or breakfast sandwiches.

If the program is still allowed to run, the school will have to set up stations for each classroom so the cohorts can stay together, rather than serving the entire school in the cafeteria. School and class sizes will make a difference in what is possible at each individual school.


Dishes and Cutlery: Sanitized or Single-Use?

“Then comes the problem of dishes. What will probably happen is there will be a bin that’s sanitized and designated for each classroom,” the parent explains. However, some school boards may only allow single-use dishes and cutlery.

“We have to get permission to use anything that has packaging because it’s been a garbage-less, litter-less program,” she says. “With the new COVID rules, there is no public garbage in our classrooms so, when parents send lunches, they have to send garbage bags as well.”


Drawbacks of Individual Pre-Packaged Food

With pre-packaged and individually portioned food comes the issue of environmental and financial sustainability. Global News reports that providing items like bottled water, individually packaged snacks, fruit, and take-out containers for a hot meal adds costs for organizations. For example, the Souls Harbour Rescue Mission in Nova Scotia, delivering more than 50,000 meals every year to struggling Canadians in the area, has seen an increase in costs from about $3.11 to $4.85 per meal. Schools could be facing similar costs.

Also, in June, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that the Government of Canada is taking steps to reduce Canada’s plastic waste.1 The plan is to ban harmful single-use plastics, such as plastic bags, straws and cutlery, as early as 2021. This may affect school food programs.


Some Schools Rely on Food Donations

The parent from Niagara says that the school her children attend has been fortunate with funding and several donors. There is a local food bank and community service centre that donated two to three crates of apples every two weeks last year. There is another program within the Niagara area that donated milk cartons for the Kindergarten children. Some of the volunteer parents also have a credit card funded by two local companies that they can use at any President’s Choice (PC) store, such as the Real Canadian Superstore, Loblaws and No Frills. Also, a farming program donates hot meals to the school. Whenever there is a school event, families are asked to bring a box of cereal for the breakfast club. Running a school food program requires a lot of careful planning and many collaborators.

Unfortunately, some not-for-profit organizations may have to cancel their fundraising for the 2020 season due to COVID-19.

“If it comes out to something that we don’t have the funds but we need the food and we’re allowed to have the program, we have a really good community and we do feel pretty confident that parents will do their best to donate cereals and things like that,” the parent says.


New Difficulties in Sourcing Volunteers

Volunteers are an important aspect of school food programs. The parent from Niagara says that it is normally difficult to find volunteers. During the pandemic, it is likely that only one parent per day will be allowed to help. She shares that COVID-19 restrictions will prevent other schools from using their normal contingent of Grade 8 students who require volunteer hours.


Tips for Packing Lunches

Parents may need to make some changes to the way they pack lunches during these times. For example:

  • Pack lunches in a recyclable brown bag or in a reusable bag and use divided reusable containers for snacks and lunches.
  • Pack reusable utensils to reduce the use of single-use plastics.
  • Pack food that does not have to be heated up, as microwaves will not be available for use.
  • Pack full water bottles that are easy for children to open.
  • Pack grab-and-go snacks like granola bars, bananas and string cheese.
  • Pack antibacterial wet wipes and/or hand sanitizer.
  • Pack a garbage bag for children to use to bring garbage home.

Keep in mind that each individual school may have different COVID-19 protocols, so make sure to adjust accordingly.

Want to Help? Support School Food Programs in Your Community

During these challenging times, we all need to pull together to support essential school food programs. The Coalition for Healthy School Food is an ongoing campaign advocating for a universal school food program accessible to all Canadian children, consisting of over 130 member organizations from the non-profit sector. They make it easy to tell your local MP that this is an important issue for Canadians. If you are able, consider donating to organizations like the Breakfast Club of Canada, Canadian Feed the Children and Food Secure Canada. Parents should also ask the school principal what they can do to help others. All children deserve to have healthy food for their minds and bellies so they can reach their full potential.



1Canada to ban harmful single-use plastics and hold companies responsible for plastic waste.” News release, Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, 10 June, 2020.

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