Canadian School Day Lunches: Nutrition and Food Group Analysis

Research Brief Publication Date: February 02, 2021
Last Updated: February 02, 2021
Researchers:

Dr. Claire N Tugault-Lafleur, University of Guelph Department of Family Relations & Applied Nutrition

Dr. Jennifer L Black, UBC Faculty of Land and Food Systems

About This Brief

This research brief was prepared by the BC Food Web team, based on an article published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 

Introduction

Studies suggest that the majority of Canadian children (aged 6 to 17 years) have poor overall diets which do not meet the 2007 Canadian national guidelines for fruit, vegetables, or dairy products. In addition, studies have shown that eating location can also dictate dietary intake, with children who eat off campus consuming less fruits and vegetables and consuming more nutritionally weak foods, such as sugar-sweetened beverages. Canada’s federal government has announced that they will begin building out a National School Food Program, as schools could provide a platform to help improve the diets of children since most children typically eat at least one meal and one to two snacks in the school environment. In order to implement this sort of school diet reform; however, we first need detailed information about the nutritional intakes of school children and where they obtain their lunch time food. The goal of this study was to assess the nutritional intakes of Candian school children and compare those intakes across eating location.

Research Process

Dietary data were obtained from the 2015 Canadian Community Health Survey which was, at the time of the study, the most recent nationally representative dietary survey for Canadians. Data was included for children aged 6 to 17 years, creating a cumulative total of 2,540 participants. This group of children was nationally representative for age, sex, geography, and socioeconomic status. 

Information about diet was obtained by conducting a 24-hour diet recall. Participants were asked for detailed information regarding food consumed, including the types of food eaten, serving sizes, eating occasion (i.e. breakfast, lunch, dinner), and the time of consumption. Children aged 6 to 11 were assisted by parents in this recall. Random subsets of participants were chosen to submit a second 24-hour recall in order to ensure accuracy. For this study, only data on what was eaten for lunch was included, and recalls taken on statutory holidays or weekends were excluded so that only school day lunch information was utilized. 

Researchers broke food group information down into four main subgroups: 1) fruits and vegetables 2) grain products 3) milk and alternatives 4) meat and alternatives. Based on detailed accounts of food eaten within these groups, they were then able to analyze data for specific vitamin and nutritional content. Researchers also simplified possible eating locations into three main subgroups: 1) school locations including the cafeteria 2) home or another person’s home or 3) off campus locations. Based on previous research, which has illustrated that off campus eating alters nutritional intake differently for younger versus older children, researchers tested these children aged 6 to 13 and 14 to 17 years separately. Demographic information such as socioeconomic status and race were used to build out the children’s profile in order to detail disparities in nutritional intake across socio-demographic groups.

Results

The study found that, on average, lunches eaten during the school day provided approximately one-quarter (26%) of the day’s total calories. However relative to this caloric intake, lunch contributed lower amounts of key nutrients and healthy food subgroups than needed. Dark green and orange vegetables, whole grains, and milk or alternatives were all lacking from the school day lunch. Consequently, key vitamins, such as D and calcium, were also low for school children. Overall, these results illustrate that the Canadian school day diet for most children is not nutritionally adequate. 

The study also found that lunch was more nutritious when eaten at school compared to when eaten off campus. Children in the older age group (14 to 17 years) who ate lunch at an off campus location were more likely to consume sugar-sweetened beverages and to be even more deficient in key nutrients than their peers eating lunch on campus. This finding may suggest, however, that campaigns to increase awareness around the health risk of sugar-sweetened beverages and snacks at school may be effective. In contrast, the children aged 14 to 17 years who did eat lunch on campus tended to consume more fruits and vegetables, along with other healthy subgroups. Encouragingly, the study found that most children of all ages (6 to 17 years) were eating lunch at school (68%), with homes being the second most common eating location. Information around whether the lunch eaten at school was provided or brought from home was not collected. In general, there were significant differences in dietary benchmarks across eating location.

Implications

It should be noted that there are inherent issues with using personal recall data, as recall error, inaccurate reporting to please societal standards, and parental guidance can all affect the accuracy of data collected. Additionally, funding for school lunch programs in Canada remains virtually nonexistent in most school systems, and if there is any it tends to come from provincial governments or even private organizations. As the federal government moves forward to implement a National School Food Program, this and other studies will offer key information as to what about the existing system needs to be shifted and corrected. Nutritionally adequate lunches and accurate health information needs to guide Canadian school food programs. A successful program will help increase Canadian children’s nutritional health and has the potential to decrease nutritional disparities caused by socioeconomic status. In particular, eating location needs to be kept in mind, especially with children ages 14 to 17, in order to ensure they make healthy choices. Childhood is a key time for establishing healthy habits, and poor nutrient availability can cause long term chronic health problems. If an effective program is implemented, the overall health of the country could be enhanced.

About This Research

This brief is based on the following journal article:

Tugault-Lafleur, C. N., & Black, J. L. (2020). Lunch on School Days in Canada: Examining Contributions to Nutrient and Food Group Intake and Differences across Eating Locations. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics,120(9), 1484-1497. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2020.01.011.

Key Findings

  • Overall, the quality of Canadian school day lunches could be improved.
  • Eating location (on versus off campus) is associated with lunch-time dietary quality, with children eating off campus showing higher nutrient deficiencies. 
  • A National School Food Program could ensure that all children get nutritionally adequate food, regardless of geographic location or socioeconomic status.