Food for thought

Nutrition is an integral part of the Ontario health and physical education curriculum


A few years ago, Anya’s parents separated, and the now-Grade 11 student found herself waking up earlier to travel to school from her father’s new home several days a week.

“Waking up early often meant that I didn’t have time to eat breakfast,” says Anya, whose family asked that her last name be withheld. “I didn’t want to worry [my father]. I’d grab a granola bar or something on the way out the door, but by 11 a.m., my stomach would be rumbling. My mind would be wandering, and I’d focus on keeping the [noise] to a minimum instead of on the lessons.”

It’s a long-held truth that a good breakfast allows a student the best possible start to the school day.

Yet even in the nation’s capital, there are students who arrive at school without breakfast. There are many reasons why, says Carolyn Hunter. “Some students don’t have access to enough healthy food outside of school; the high cost of food is putting unprecedented pressure on family budgets. But there also are other reasons as well,” says Hunter. Some students, like Anya, have long commutes.

Carolyn Hunter. Photo Credit Liz Babiak

For these individuals—and others “who may need the social and nourishing connection with peers and school staff to start their day off on the right foot,” says Hunter—there’s the Ottawa Network for Education (ONFE)’s Ottawa School Breakfast Program, of which Hunter is the director, and Anya benefited. The program, which is universally accessible and non-stigmatizing, provides students in over 200 schools with a nutritious breakfast, to remove barriers to learning and support student well-being and so students can start their days on equal footing with their peers.

When a day starts with a nutritious breakfast, students benefit the most from their day of learning, says Hunter. “Good nutrition is one of the key building blocks for healthy growth and development,” she says, and studies have shown that it improves focus and academic performance.

This is also something that officials at the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario (CDSBEO) knows. “The pace of life for families has increased, as has the cost of healthy food choices,” the CDSBEO stated in an e-mail interview with Parenting Times Magazine. The CDSBEO has principals who represent the board on committees such as the Ontario Southeast School Nutrition Program Advisory Committee to receive presentations and to discuss supporting students. CDSBEO schools also work with local charities that assist in providing healthy foods.

From a learning standpoint, nutrition is also an integral part of the Ontario health and physical education curriculum, the CDSBEO stated. “As early as Grade 1, it is part of the curriculum strands,” the statement continued. “As students move on to high school, there is the opportunity to take hospitality class where nutrition and cooking are taught in our schools. Nutrition is also a major focus in many of our high school physical education classes as the link to healthy eating and the positive benefits to physical health and body image are taught.”

Food and nutrition are such important subjects that Turnbull School’s teachers start talking about them in junior kindergarten, says the school’s Director, Gareth Reid.


Gareth Reid. Photo Courtesy Turnbull School


Although much of the teaching comes about organically—”when children are eating their snacks and lunch, it makes a lot of sense to start a discussion on nutrition, healthy snacks, eating well, the importance of drinking water, etc.,” Reid says—other lessons come from the Canada Food Guide.

“The importance of healthy food choices, proper hydration, sleep and regular exercise have not changed all that much over the past 10 years or even 30 years (my career),” says Reid. However, Reid points out that as the Canada Food Guide is periodically updated, discussions and lessons evolve and change as new information comes out. 

The CDSBEO added: “The guide is an excellent reference and there are many accompanying resources that are great to support the curriculum.”

Teachings are geared towards the ages of the students. For all grades, nutrition education is worked into Turnbull’s Character & Leadership and physical education curricula. In Turnbull’s kindergarten program, children learn about healthy snacks; what goes into a well-balanced meal; about proteins, carbohydrates and fats and how food gives their bodies energy, Reid says. He credits parents and guardians for starting the conversation at home as well. Many of the students, Reid says, “already know what a treat is versus a healthy snack.” The students, the CDSBEO added in the email interview, “make connections quite easily from the curriculum to their personal experience.”

Hunter agrees that teaching the importance of nutrition can start at home. “It’s a great idea to get your children involved in preparing their own snacks and meals for school and even helping to prepare dinner,” she says. “Getting kids involved in meal preparation will help to develop their food skills and literacy and set them up to make lifelong healthy and economical food choices.”




About the School Breakfast Program

The program, which serves more than 14,500 meals (breakfast or a snack) at 200 schools each day, is funded, supported and implemented by individual and corporate donors, volunteers, educators, the City of Ottawa, the Ontario Ministry of Children and Community and Social Services. “We have seen a spike in demand for new programs this year with students back to full-time in-person learning,” says Hunter. “There are also more students participating in our existing programs this year; we expect to see a continued increase in daily participation this school year.”


The Spark Soirée

In celebration of the ONFE’s School Breakfast Program, the Spark Soirée returns to the Infinity Convention Centre on May 6. The event will showcase how ONFE programs fuel kids and ignite learning every school day. Supporters will dine on a classy breakfast-for-dinner menu and network with other philanthropic, community-minded individuals and business professionals, as well as executives from Ottawa’s four school boards. For more information, visit