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Liberals commit $1 billion to new national school food program

The federal Liberal government is finally making good on a years-old election campaign pledge, committing Monday to allocate $1 billion over five years to fund a new national school food program.

The funding, to be included in the upcoming April 16 budget, will launch with the aim of expanding existing school food programs, providing meals to an additional 400,000 Canadian kids a year.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland made the announcement in Scarborough, backed by members of cabinet and caucus as part of their latest pre-budget press tour.

Vowing to work with provinces, territories, and Indigenous partners on implementation — as he has with other recent pre-budget pledges — Trudeau framed this funding as a safety net for kids and families facing food insecurity.

“During the long weekend, a lot of people spent time with their family and shared good meals together, and around the kitchen table a lot of people were talking about grocery prices that are still too high. Tomorrow, kids will be going back to school, and some of them won’t have enough to eat. That impacts their health and their opportunities to learn and grow,” Trudeau said.

“Like we said last week, this year’s upcoming budget will be all about fairness. Fairness for every generation. That of course includes and starts with children and families. We all want kids to have the best start in life, including the most vulnerable,” he said.

During the 2021 election campaign, the federal government promised to “develop a National School Food Policy and work towards a national school nutritious meal program with a $1 billion dollar investment over five years.”

After the pledge was mentioned in the 2022 federal budget with no funding attached, and left out again in 2023, advocates warned the future of schools’ ability to keep offering meals to students was in jeopardy due to an influx in students accessing school food programs, and skyrocketing food costs without proportional program funding increases.

Citing food price inflation and studies indicating Canadians are changing their eating habits as a result of these economic strains, advocates told CTV News at the time that a national school food program was more needed now than when the pledge was initially made. 

School meal programs offering hungry students something to eat already exist in varying forms in all provinces and territories, though federal statistics say that they only reach approximately 21 per cent of school-age children.

These programs are made possible largely through provincial and territorial government funding — which advocates have said is also in need of substantial increases given the impacts of inflation — as well as private sector and community donations, and volunteers’ time.

The government has already held consultations meant to help guide a policy framework regarding the expansion of Canadian school food programs, and Freeland said that she wants to see this school food funding roll out the door, “as early as the 2024-2025 school year.”

Earlier on Monday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh held a press conference calling on the Liberals to make good on this pledge.

While not a measure included in their two-party supply-and-confidence pact, Singh has been pushing for this funding to be included in the budget, noting Canada is lagging behind other G7 countries when it comes to enacting a national school meal program.

“If you’re hungry, it’s hard to focus on anything else… There are so many families that are just struggling with food security. That means kids are going hungry, and when kids are hungry, they can’t focus on school. They can’t focus on having fun, they can’t focus on being a kid, and it should not happen,” Singh said.

“We need stable funding from the federal government to ensure that every kid going to school in our country, no matter where they live, no matter what school they go to, is getting a nutritious meal.”

Since late last year, NDP and Liberal MPs have been trying to use the prospect of a school food program as a wedge, calling out Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and his party for voting against a private member’s bill seeking to advance a national school food program framework while decrying how “Canadians are hungry.”

Conservatives have said they rejected the bill due to it not having any funding attached, stating at the time that hungry families couldn’t eat a framework.

More to come… 

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