TORONTO - A new report is recommending provincial and territorial governments create a pan-Canadian program to fund school meals for vulnerable children.
The study — released Tuesday by the Conference Board of Canada — addresses food insecurity, which is the lack of access to nutritious and affordable food.
Almost 10 per cent of Canadian households with children faced food insecurity in 2007-08, compared to less than seven per cent for homes without children, said lead author Alison Howard.
"In a country as advanced as Canada, it's really telling that there are people who go hungry everyday, especially vulnerable populations such as children," she said.
Howard noted that it's difficult to get more recent statistics on food insecurity.
"There is an unfortunate lack of research that measures the true extent of the problem on an ongoing basis in Canada," she said.
A poor diet can hinder a child's performance at school and have long-lasting effects into adulthood, the report noted.
For children, poor nutrition increases the chances of developing health problems, including anaemia, weight loss, colds and infections, Howard said, adding that children who face food insecurity also miss more days of school.
Poor nutrition can also lead to negative psycho-social outcomes.
"Teenagers especially for example are at risk of suffering depression, social anxiety, suicide," Howard said.
The report suggested that nutrition programs in every province and territory could help alleviate food insecurity.
It recommended that any fees for participation be based on household income, which is one of the main predicting factors for access to nutritious food.
"National school meal programs are used in each of the other G8 countries as a practical means of reaching food-insecure school-age children directly to offset hunger and insufficient nutrition," the report stated.
Howard pointed to a U.S. program as an example of a federal school-feeding initiative.
The National School Lunch Program reimburses schools for meals served and gives schools access to cheaper food options.
Some schools are, however, cutting ties with the program. The schools complained that students refused to eat healthier options such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, so cafeterias are losing money.
Howard said the success of a school-feeding program partly depends on educating children on what is nutritious. A program in Canada would need to be monitored closely, she said.
The Conference Board report offered up recommendations to address food insecurity in Canada's general population as well.
"Within Canada, socio-economic groups which are disproportionately more likely to be food-insecure include lone-parent families, women, children, Aboriginal peoples, recent immigrants, and the elderly," the report stated.
Howard said factors influencing everyday life must be looked at.
"The low income is connected to the cost of food and to the cost of non-food essentials such as shelter and transportation," she said, adding that by lowering costs of essential items, families are able to increase "discretionary spending" to buy healthy food.
In July a separate report found that nearly one in eight Canadian households couldn't access sufficient, safe and nutritious food in 2011, and suggested food insecurity is a growing problem in most of the country.
That report, which included research from the University of Toronto, stated that at a national level the number of people facing food insecurity is rising — 450,000 more Canadians were affected in 2011 compared to 2008.
The report estimated that 3.9 million Canadians were affected by some level of food insecurity in 2011.
Nunavut had especially high rates with 36 per cent of households affected, while the Maritimes, Yukon and the Northwest Territories had more than 15 per cent of households dealing with the issue.