The federal government has committed to developing a national school food policy and working toward a national school food program, and Dr. Katelyn (Godin) Colonnier (BSc '13, Health Studies, PhD '18, Public Health and Health Systems) is part of a team working to put these commitments into action.
“Providing students with a no- or low-cost nutritious meal while they are at school is certainly an expensive venture, but there's evidence from all over the world that shows the many short- and long-term benefits these programs yield for children, families and communities across the socio-economic spectrum,” says Colonnier, who works as a senior policy analyst at Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC).
“While school food programs are commonplace in some parts of the country, they are very scarce in others. Having a national program in place would be a big shift, a big milestone. But the evidence shows that it’s a worthwhile investment in current and future generations of young people.”
While working toward her doctorate, Colonnier was lead author on a study that found many Canadian students skip breakfast, even in schools with breakfast programs in place. She says that due to a lack of social awareness about their benefits, limited and inconsistent funding for programming and stigma around receiving school meals, the many benefits of these programs have not been fully realized in Canada. She notes, however, that each of these barriers can be addressed through public policy and collaboration across governments and school communities.
“I’m new to my role at ESDC but I hope to follow through on some of the recommendations I made in my doctoral research,” says Colonnier. “I want to help see them through to their implementation.”
Making the healthy choice the easy choice
When Colonnier was an undergraduate student in her third year, Dr. Scott Leatherdale did a guest lecture in one of her courses, speaking to the importance of fostering healthy environments for supporting youth health and well-being.
“I was hanging on every word, thinking, this makes so much sense! Putting the onus on individuals to make better ‘choices’ ignores the fact that many people have few, or few good, choices available to them by virtue of their socio-economic situation,” says Colonnier. “Instead, we should be working to create an environment that promotes and enables healthy living for everyone.”
After the guest lecture, she reached out to Leatherdale and asked him to work with her on an undergraduate independent research study, and later, as her PhD supervisor.
Working with Leatherdale and COMPASS, his research group, Colonnier led a study during her time at Waterloo that suggested that school nutrition policies could help moderate high school students’ sugary drink intake, especially when coupled with complementary efforts to improve the broader food environment.
“School-aged children are at a unique developmental stage in which they are exploring their identity and developing more autonomy,” says Colonnier. “It’s a prime time to nurture positive healthy behaviours, and doing so can have long-lasting impacts on young people’s health.”
COMPASS longitudinal youth study
Colonnier’s involvement in COMPASS set the stage for her work in youth health and well-being. COMPASS is a learning system currently following more than 75,000 Canadian youth, surveying a variety of their health-related behaviours, including eating patterns, levels of physical activity, use of tobacco, vaping products, alcohol and cannabis, and mental health and bullying.
These data are then shared with the children’s schools, while maintaining participants’ anonymity, and used by stakeholders in local health and education systems to make informed, evidence-based decisions around their health policies and programs.
“It’s an incredible longitudinal study – one of a kind in Canada,” says Colonnier. “It collects data year to year, allowing us to see changes in youth outcomes and behaviours as they progress through high school.”
In addition to student-level measures, COMPASS collects data on features of the school environment that may influence youth behaviours, like which athletics and recreation programs are in place, what items are available in the vending machines and even the school’s proximity to places like parks, vape shops and fast-food restaurants.
Colonnier continued to produce studies within COMPASS even after completing her PhD, acting as a bridge to connect the valuable evidence generated from the study to her work at the Public Health Agency of Canada, where she worked for more than five years prior to moving to ESDC.
Addressing solutions to other big problems
“Katelyn works on topics where she knows there are mandates for change,” says Leatherdale. “Her research is designed to improve the lives of the people we care about the most. She works on the side of science where things happen.”
He notes that “research in action is not doing research just for the sake of doing research – it’s doing research to answer a question that someone is going to act on, then doing more research to see if it worked.”
Colonnier’s government work first started in federal substance use policy, initially working part-time as a student through the Federal Student Work Experience Program and then full-time after graduating. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, she moved to a new Vaccine Confidence Policy team and helped facilitate Canada’s largest vaccine campaign in history. She later worked for nearly two years as a policy advisor to Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, helping to advance a wide variety of public health files at the Public Health Agency of Canada.
“I try not to be rigid with what I want to do next, but I have some broader goals on what I would like to achieve in my career,” says Colonnier. “Within the federal government, there are so many interesting policy areas I can explore through my work, including those outside of public health realm, like social and environmental policy. The sky is the limit.”