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‘Long time coming’: Budget to include $1B for 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, Ont., 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.

“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,” the prime minister said, noting the cost of groceries was likely a topic of conversation at many family gatherings over the long weekend.

“We’ve recognized that every province and territory has its ways of delivering food programs to kids, but we also know the need is far greater than anyone is able to meet right now,” Trudeau said, noting some recent progress made in Nova Scotia and Manitoba.

“These are choices we’re making as a government because we know that making sure that young people here get the best start in life… is how you build fairness for every generation.”

‘A very, very long time coming’

Participating in the announcement, Boys and Girls Club East Scarborough CEO Utcha Sawyers welcomed the funding, but called the news “a very, very long time coming.”

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 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.”

In a statement, the Breakfast Club of Canada said the Liberals committing to fund this program “marks a turning point in the country’s commitment to the well-being of all children as 1 in 3 are at risk of going to school on an empty stomach.”

As an organization that currently reaches 420,000 children across 3,000 programs, the Breakfast Club of Canada is vowing to work with the various levels of government on implementation.

“These programs can improve children’s learning and mental health and reduce their risk of developing chronic disease,” Heart & Stroke Foundation CEO Doug Roth said in a statement.

Political pressure around pledge 

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.

Asked if he supports the plan for the Liberal program given his concerns about food insecurity, Poilievre called it a failure of Trudeau’s government that one in four school children are going without enough food.

“I find it ironic that he is promising a federal food bureaucracy in Ottawa the same day as he raises taxes on food,” Poilievre said Monday in Nanaimo, B.C., referencing the scheduled April 1 increase to the carbon price. His plan would be to instead “lower the cost of food for everyone” by scrapping the carbon tax.

In a statement reacting to Monday’s news, executive director of the non-profit Centre for Health Science and Law Bill Jeffery said that parties of various political stripes have implemented forms of subsidized food programs over the years.

He called for Canadian politicians to champion policies that improve the lives of children, “not treat kids as podiums for attacking political adversaries.”

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