Yukon First Nations lead the way in school feeding

Over the past few months, more than 1,000 indigenous children in Yukon schools have had access to something many Canadian students don’t: an affordable daily school lunch.

The meals are the centerpiece of an innovative school feeding program that aims to reduce food insecurity among indigenous children in the territory. Run by the Yukon First Nations Education Directorate (YFNED), an organization dedicated to promoting First Nations schooling in the territory, the program is a key part of the group’s push to bring back education for indigenous children.

About 20 cooks work for the program, spread across nine schools with kitchens and a commercial kitchen that is used to prepare meals for families in need. The program contracts with about six Whitehorse restaurants to serve meals for schools that do not have adequate cooking facilities.

It works closely with Yukon Food for Learning, an organization that runs school feeding programs for non-Indigenous students in the territory. The groups collaborate to provide food for all students and reduce tensions between indigenous and non-indigenous students that might occur around access to school meals.

It also provides meals to children studying in the most remote communities in the territory, as well as food baskets and community banquets for children and their families. In addition to addressing food insecurity, the meals are designed to help build community and promote cultural awareness, regardless of a family’s economic circumstances.

“This is the first of its kind in the Yukon and in the entire country,” said program coordinator Courtney Wheelton, manager of First Nations initiatives for YFNED. The program has been well received by cooks and parents, who say the easy access to food has increased student attendance and participation in class. Students also enjoy the food, with a group at a Whitehorse high school even creating a instagram page with food reviews.

Funding for the initiative comes from the federal government through the Jordan Principle, which requires Canada to ensure that all First Nations children can access the services they need, when they need them. The principle funds the YFNED program to the tune of about $15 a day per student for food, she said.

Researchers have found that school meals play an important role in alleviating childhood hunger, as well as laying the foundation for children to adopt healthy lifestyles and helping them do better in school. Adequate meals are also linked to better emotional well-being and resilience, regardless of a child’s economic circumstances.

Canada is the only G7 nation that does not have a national school feeding program. The Federal Liberals pledged to create a national program during the 2021 federal election, but have yet to deliver on their promise.

As those plans come together, YFNED’s approach is a “model for indigenous programs … but also a model for everyone in the country,” said Debbie Field, coordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Feeding.

Over the past few months, more than 1,000 indigenous children in Yukon schools have had access to something many Canadian students don’t: an affordable daily school lunch.

“This is probably the most intensive, well-funded and well-thought-out multi-meal day of any large jurisdiction…it’s great news for all children in Canada, not just indigenous children.”

Regardless of the scale of the program, serving thousands of children scattered over a vast territory daily, it is unique in its role as a key part of YFNED’s work to bring back indigenous education. Canada’s colonial policies, including residential schools, actively sought to erode the food sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples.

Food sovereignty is the ability of a group to control their access to food, as opposed to food security, which is simply having reliable access to food. The Yukon program is part of an effort to counteract the impact of these policies by ensuring students have enough food, introducing them to new foods or cooking techniques, and helping them access traditional foods like bison or salmon.

Hopefully those successes are just the beginning of a broader school feeding program accessible to all students in the territory, Wheelton explained.

“We fully support … moving towards a universal school feeding system. We know the importance of food for students and that it is accessible,” he said. “Hopefully, one day we’ll get there.”

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