Opportunities and challenges for school food programs in Canada

Lessons from the United States


  • Amberley T. Ruetz University of Saskatchewan
  • Janet E. Poppendieck Senior Faculty Fellow, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, Professor Emerita of Sociology, Hunter College, City University of New York




National school food program, universal free school meals, stigma, food policy, health, education, funding, employment, procurement


As Canada works towards developing a national school food program, it is timely to examine the lessons learned from the programs of other countries. Analyzing these insights can help Canada avoid key pitfalls and replicate promising practices in program design and implementation. The Government of Canada has the advantage of learning from one of the longest standing national school food programs and our southern neighbour: the United States (U.S.). This paper distills vital lessons from the U.S. school food programs, with a focus on addressing four critical aspects: access, emphasis on health and education, funding, and program implementation. First, the U.S. experience demonstrates the significance of universal free school meals. The historical inadequacies of means-tested programs result in inefficiencies, stigma, and exclusion of students in need. Second, the paper argues for an emphasis on health and education benefits. Third, it underscores the necessity of adequate funding. Inadequate reimbursements in the U.S. have compromised meal quality and led to the food industry’s capitalization on school meals, with negative implications for children’s health. Lastly, harnessing the power of procurement and employment can stimulate local economies, create good jobs, and foster a healthier food environment. As Canada tailors its national school food program to its diverse regions and communities, it has an extraordinary opportunity to avoid the policy and program implementation errors revealed by the U.S. experience.




How to Cite

Ruetz, A. T., & Poppendieck, J. (2024). Opportunities and challenges for school food programs in Canada: Lessons from the United States. Canadian Food Studies La Revue Canadienne Des études Sur l’alimentation, 11(1), 157–170. https://doi.org/10.15353/cjds.v11i1.665