Annette Blais, MSc Candidate

Department of Nutritional Sciences
University of Toronto

Examining the alignment of school food programs in Canada with national nutrition guidelines

Given the minimal evidence assessing Canadian school food programs (SFPs), the importance of childhood nutrition in shaping lifelong eating habits, and the recent federal commitment to developing a national school feeding strategy, this research investigates the nutritional quality of Canada’s current school food landscape. Organizations involved in the planning, preparation, and/or procurement of school foods were surveyed to capture program characteristics and menus. The nutritional quality of menus was evaluated using two indices: the Healthy Eating Food Index (HEFI) and the Healthy Eating Index Canada (HEI-C) to assess and compare SFP adherence to the 2019 and 2007 Canada’s Food Guides, respectively. Sixty-one complete survey responses were included in data analysis, representing SFPs in 2607 schools nationally. The average overall HEFI and HEI-C scores were approximately 50% of the maximum possible scores across breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Results revealed that meals served by SFPs were high in sugar and sodium and low in protein, potentially due in part to SFPs’ high reliance on prepackaged foods. Building on our previous research that reported nutritional quality and product cost as the largest determinants of foods served in SFPs, this work reveals a gap between intended and actual nutritional quality of SFPs that necessitates further investigation. This work is the first to evaluate the nutritional quality of SFPs in Canada, establishing a baseline prior to federal intervention. In revealing low adherence to national nutrition guidelines, results highlight the need for federal involvement and standardized school nutrition guidelines in Canadian SFPs.

Speaker/Chair Bio:

Annette Blais is a Master’s of Science candidate in the University of Toronto’s Department of Nutritional Sciences under the supervision of Dr. Vasanti Malik. She obtained her HBsc in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo and has completed the University of Toronto’s Collaborative Specialization in Public Health Policy. Complementing her education, Annette’s professional experience with Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) deepened her understanding of the role of government in promoting healthy public policies. Her MSc research is focused on evaluating the school food landscape in Canada, including its characteristics, nutritional quality, and potential determinants of school food program (SFP) nutritional quality. Annette’s research leverages novel survey methods to collect SFP characteristics and menu data, upon which she applies Canadian indices of nutritional quality to assess SFP adherence to national nutrition guidelines. Annette’s research is part of the broader Feeding Kids, Nourishing Minds (FKNM) Research Initiative and is funded by the FKNM School-Based Nutrition Graduate Student Award. Annette’s work will be pivotal in the development of a harmonized national school food policy and program, informing priority areas for improvement in a poorly understood school food landscape.