Child nutrition in Canada: poverty, health and well-being

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A few weeks ago Nadir was talking to a woman at intake that had brought her daughter with her to pick up a hamper. Nadir asked the girl, “no school today?” The mother responded that she didn’t have a lunch to send with her daughter to school, so she kept her at home instead. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual statement for us to hear at intake.  Faced with the option of having her daughter go to school hungry—where her child might face social isolation from her peers, and her teacher might contact Family and Children’s Services—or not sending her at all, the mother had to make a choice. Like many Canadian families, this mother probably had to choose between sending her child to school with a nutritious and school appropriate lunch and being able to pay her rent for the month. For the child growing up in poverty, this decision will have a long term effect on their education, health, and probably their social well-being.

The extent of child poverty in Canada was outlined in a recent report by UNICEF (which can be found here), called “measuring child poverty:  new league tables of child poverty in the world’s richest countries.” The report ranked the wealthiest countries in the world according to how many children were in relative poverty. According to UNICEF, a child is living in relative poverty when they are living in a household where disposable income is less than 50% of the median disposable income for the country. By this criteria, 13.3% of Canadian children are living in relative poverty. What’s more, as this article explains, though the federal government once pledged to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000, now, 12 years after that milestone has passed, there is still no national definition of child poverty or concrete strategies at a national level to reduce it. Though it is hard to know for certain how many children are poor because there are competing definitions of poverty and different ways to measure it, we do know that of the approximately 851 000 Canadians who visited food banks in 2011, over one third of them were children (see this infographic for more information from food banks and yearly report cards on child poverty here from Campaign 2000).

So, why is it important to reduce child poverty as opposed to overall poverty? Well, poverty as a whole is problematic. Living in poverty has a direct impact on people’s health, as Matt talks about here. Child poverty, however, is a measure of what is perhaps the most vulnerable population segment in Canada. Furthermore, there are significant repercussions to a child growing up in poverty that can last generations. When a child grows up in a household facing severe food insecurity, it has direct repercussions on their well being in adulthood. A 2007 study called “the impact of poverty on the current and future health status of children” outlines these effects in great detail. The study, which can be found here, illustrates the links between poor childhood health and development and health in adulthood, arguing that children who grow up at a socioeconomic disadvantage are more likely to develop many health conditions, including asthma, diabetes, and mental illness.

One link between childhood poverty and adult development that relates directly to our services is that of child poverty and nutrition. To state the obvious, when a child grows up in a poor household, they are more than likely going to face food insecurity and hunger. This blog from the Guardian outlines the consequences of children going to school hungry from a teacher’s perspective. It confirms from an anecdotal point of view what social research has already proven; children going to school hungry are less focused, less able to retain information, and are more likely to have behavioral issues than their more privileged peers. In the long term, this affects the level of education they attain as adults, as well as their health as adults, which in turn affects their livelihood and income and diminishes the potential of our economy.

In the same 2007 study I referenced earlier, the authors talk about solutions to child poverty. They suggest that the most direct way to combat it is through increasing direct transfer payments (such as child benefits and social assistance) in order to increase the amount of disposable income available to families. Indeed, according to The Stop Food Community Food Centre in Toronto, the average person who uses their services has only $5 per day for food after paying other expenses out of their Ontario Works cheque (for more information, see their infographic here). Raising the amount of money people receive on programs like Ontario Works will directly impact childhood nutrition; generally speaking, if families are more financially stable, their children’s food security will increase, and their health and education will benefit from this as well.

Though food banks and food hamper programs do play an important role in feeding children—we often offer school snacks and try to keep lunch-friendly options on hand—we offer a short term solution. In the long-term, it is crucial that we recognize the direct and indirect impacts of widespread child poverty (further reading can be found here). Even from an economic point of view, improving child nutrition and alleviating child poverty would be good for everyone; for example, preventing adult health conditions would probably reduce provincial healthcare costs in the long term. That said, regardless of economic benefits, parents should not have to choose between sending their children to school with no lunch, or keeping them home to take them to the food bank.

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One Response to “Child nutrition in Canada: poverty, health and well-being”

  1. jordan alyward Says:

    this was great

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