Justin Trudeau announces national school food program amid rising grocery prices

Posted on April 2, 2024 in Child & Family Delivery System

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TheStar.com – Federal Politics
April 1, 2024.   By Raisa Patel Ottawa Bureau, Omar Mosleh Staff Reporter

The Liberals estimate such a measure would give roughly 400,000 children access to healthier meals. 

OTTAWA — The federal government has unveiled a long-promised national school food program ahead of this month’s federal budget, pledging $1 billion over five years to feed kids as grocery prices continue to rise.

The Liberal government estimates such a measure, which is expected to be laid out in its April 16 budget, would give access to healthier meals to roughly 400,000 children who are not served by existing school-based programs, and who tend to come from lower-income families and racialized and Indigenous communities.

“We recognize that every province and territory has its ways of delivering food programs to kids, but we also know that need is far greater than anyone is able to meet right now,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a news conference in Toronto.

“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, that teachers can be there supporting their kids in the most ambitious way possible, is how you build a strong economy (and) how you build fairness for every generation,” Trudeau amid a two-week sprint of announcements designed to play up the coming budget.

Local educators and advocates in Toronto called the announcement long overdue and a huge relief. They told stories of children getting lunches from vending machines due to parents having to choose between paying rent and feeding them, and students being sent to school with pop and uncooked packages of processed food.

In one instance, school staff grew concerned when a young girl hadn’t come to school in three days. When they reached out to the mother, she told the principal she kept the child at home because she didn’t have any food to send with her.

In making Monday’s announcement, the Liberals are fulfilling a 2021 campaign promise that built on previous budget commitments to work with provinces and territories to smooth over gaps in Canada’s patchwork of school breakfast and lunch plans.

Advocates had criticized Ottawa’s previous inaction on the file.

In a prebudget submission, the Coalition for Healthy School Food said it was “extremely important” for the government to ease the economic pressures families across the country are facing.

The coalition, which represents more than 270 non-profit organizations, said Canada is the only G7 nation without a national school food program, and ranks 37th out of 41 of the world’s wealthiest countries when it comes to providing healthy food for children.

Judith Barry, co founder of the Breakfast Club of Canada, said one of the reasons for that was the lack of a national school food program.

“We’ll finally be able to level the playing field,” she said.

A March nutrition update from the Toronto District School Board reports 14 per cent of students said they sometimes, often or always feel hungry because of food shortages at home.

The highest level of food insecurity was in Ward 4, where 62 per cent of parents or caregivers at the elementary school level said they were worried food may run out for their families; 53 per cent at the secondary school level reported the same concerns.

Catherine Parsonage, executive director and CEO of Toronto Foundation for Student Success, said the situation has only grown more desperate as the cost of living increases.

“We have a perfect storm right now. We have 30 per cent more kids (accessing school nutrition programs) yet food cost has gone up 30 per cent. With today’s announcement, it’s a good day for Toronto’s kids and Ontario’s children, because we have hit that crisis point,” she said.

Parsonage said in her 30 years of working with children, food insecurity has never been more dire.

“This year and last year, I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said. “We’ve never had (so many) teachers and schools talking about how many kids are coming without lunches, without breakfast.”

School food programs have been linked to improved eating patterns and a reduced risk of developing chronic conditions. The Coalition for Healthy School Food has pegged the annual cost of nutrition-related disease in Canada at $13.8 billion.

The federal NDP — which sought Monday to take credit for Trudeau’s announcement — said the country’s increasing cost of living and reliance on food banks was evidence such a program is needed.

“We’ve been making this demand now for months. We want to see in this upcoming budget funding to support a national food program for kids in school,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh .

Singh, who is more than two years into a parliamentary alliance with the Liberals that could keep Trudeau’s minority government in power until 2025, said a national program was not something the NDP negotiated as part the deal, despite regularly pushing for the measure in the past.

Both Singh and Trudeau slammed Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre for helming a party that in December voted against a Liberal private member’s bill to establish a framework for a school meals program.

The Conservatives said at the time they opposed the bill because it would not directly solve the problem.

On Monday, speaking to reporters in Nanaimo, B.C., Poilievre questioned why Trudeau needed to introduce a national program after eight years in power.

“Well, now by his own admission, one in four kids don’t get enough food,” the Conservative leader said.

Poilievre reiterated his argument that scrapping the federal carbon price would do more to lower food costs and help families than launching a new program, though some economists say the levy’s impact on food costs is minimal.

Trudeau said Monday that the government plans to work with provinces, territories and Indigenous groups to expand existing programs, some of which are funded by under-resourced organizations.

Parsonage said she hopes the program will be implemented quickly.

“We’re looking forward to seeing this rollout before the next school year,” she said, “because kids can’t wait.”

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star.


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