School-approved Cheetos? Why we must protect school food from corporate interests

"We have good reason to sound the alarm about the power of the food industry in shaping diets and health"

Published July 26, 2023 12:30PM (EDT)

Students eating lunch in a school cafeteria (Getty Images/JGI/Tom Grill)
Students eating lunch in a school cafeteria (Getty Images/JGI/Tom Grill)

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Universal access to healthy school meal programs is essential for children's well-being, but Canada lags behind its peers in providing nutritious food to children.

While the federal government committed to a national school food program in the 2019 budget, it has not funded its implementation.

A report on the 2022 consultations on a national school food policy will soon be released. It's likely that the food industry will have made their corporate interests heard and industry-affiliated corporations are known to lobby Canadian policymakers to influence federal nutrition policies.

Public engagement is key to building inclusive and accessible public policy. The consultations heard from provincial, territorial and Indigenous governments and community organizations about the value and role of healthy school food. It also heard from the food industry — and this is problematic.

The food industry uses policy consultations to advance competing corporate industry interests to the detriment of public health.


Food industry lobbying

We have good reason to sound the alarm about the power of the food industry in shaping diets and health. The food industry regularly borrows from the political playbook of tobacco, alcohol and other health-harming industries. They do this to protect their commercial interests.

The federal government has not yet ruled out a significant role for the food industry in the creation of a national school food program. This openness to industry influence or interference is cause for concern due to the profit-driven mandate of businesses that make or process unhealthy and unsustainable foods.

The current patchwork of school-based meal programming across Canada also creates an unhealthy and unsustainable reliance on volunteers and charitable giving. Food companies have been free to strategically position themselves as key players in food security through philanthropy.

If Big Food becomes even more involved with school food, who will really benefit? Our children, or shareholders?

The development of a national school food program will be attractive economically to the food industry as multi-national food companies will see it as a way to increase sales and introduce their brands to children at a young age.

By subtly positioning their products in schools, the food industry exerts its power to establish its credibility. We saw this with the infamous "school-approved" Cheetos in the National School Lunch Program in the United States.


Burnishing reputations

At a time when food companies are attempting to engage in reputational management in the face of soaring food costs, being seen as the solution to food insecurity might help their image.

In fact, the food industry promoting itself as being "part of the solution" represents an evolution of non-market tactics that are designed to effectively manipulate public and political perspectives, including regulatory decisions, to favour industry interests over others. This includes children's health.

There are three steps the federal government must take to prevent corporate influence in the development of a national school program:


1. Define the role of the food industry

In collaboration with the provinces and territories, the government must define the role of the food industry and commercial entities in providing food to schools. Schoolchildren must be protected from marketing campaigns and efforts to make junk food more readily available.

Ultimately, food companies and their charitable foundations should not have a seat at the table in the development of a national school food program or its governance.


2. Invest in the school food program

The government must properly fund a national school food program. This will allow Indigenous governments, provinces and territories, along with local school communities, to tailor and customize their food programming free from the influence of corporate charitable giving.

Although the level of investment to make a national program a reality is likely to be significant, relying on the corporate sector to offset these costs should not be an option.


3. Pass protective legislation

The federal government can make Bill C-252, the Child Health Protection Act, a government bill and increase the chances of its speedy adoption.

It's currently a private member's bill tabled by Liberal MP Patricia Lattanzio to amend the Food and Drugs Act and prohibit food and beverage marketing directed at children.

Bill C-252 isn't perfect and regulations would need to be drafted. But it could provide an additional layer of protection to prevent corporate entities from marketing to children while they're attending school.

Developing and implementing a national school food program can help build the foundations for a healthy population over the long term. The federal government must limit the influence of the food industry on a national school food program to protect the health and well-being of Canadian children and youth.

Sara F.L. Kirk, Professor of Health Promotion; Scientific Director of the Healthy Populations Institute, Dalhousie University; Amberley T. Ruetz, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, College of Medicine, University of Saskatchewan; Rachel Prowse, Assistant Professor, Nutrition and Dietetics, Memorial University of Newfoundland, and Steve Machat, PhD Candidate, Interdisciplinary Studies, Dalhousie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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