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Amid concern over Canadians going hungry, Conservatives criticized for voting against school food bill

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As Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre continues to voice concern over the increase in food bank usage, his party is being criticized by some for voting against a private member's bill that would advance a framework for a national school food program.

Though, the Official Opposition is defending their stance against a bill they say would do little beyond creating more bureaucracy.

On Thursday, as Poilievre rose in the House of Commons to speak to his latest push to see the federal Liberals "immediately repeal the carbon tax on farmers, First Nations and families," the Official Opposition leader spoke about how "Canadians are hungry."

He cited the rising rates of food bank usage, as well as reports of Canadians changing their food buying and consumption habits because of price increases he attributed to inflation and the impacts of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's carbon pricing program.

But, after the Conservative caucus voted Wednesday against a bill seeking to see fewer Canadian kids go without meals, some Liberals and New Democrats are questioning the party's position. 

"Pierre Conservatives just voted against a National School Food Program. Who votes against a program that will help kids not go to school hungry? Pierre," posted Liberal MP Irek Kusmierczyk. 

"So the Conservatives voted against a national framework for a school nutrition program today. Yes, you read that correctly," posted NDP MP Alistair MacGregor, to some pushback.

Bill C-322, from Liberal MP Serge Cormier still managed to pass on to the House committee study stage, but it remains to be seen if it'll progress enough to become law, as the federal government is now years behind on keeping their $1 billion election promise of creating and funding a national school food policy and healthy meal program. 

The proposed bill would set out the criteria for determining which food schools should consider healthy and which meals must be offered; take into account cultural and dietary considerations; plan to prevent stigmatization of using the program; and factor in existing school food programs.

In its four pages, the proposed "National Framework for a School Food Program Act," also outlines a timeline for consultations and a required report from the minister of employment and social development setting out the national framework, within one year of the bill coming into effect.

While advocates warn the future of schools' ability to keep offering meals to students is in jeopardy, the financial component needed to see the Liberals keep their 2021 pledge and actually fund a national school food plans is not a part of this bill, given the rules around the types of legislation that can commit the government to spending money.

"I truly believe this is one of the most important pieces of social legislation the House will debate this session," Cormier said in speaking to his bill last month. "There are far too many children in Canada going to bed hungry or starting off the school day without a nutritious breakfast… but we have the opportunity to do something about it."

Conservatives have suggested they rejected the bill due to it not addressing the pressing food price concerns Canadians have today, dismissing the suggestions their opposition to it is incompatible with their focus on constituents going hungry.

"Canadian children can't eat a framework. If Justin Trudeau and his out of touch Liberals really cared about kids and their nutrition, they would immediately axe their punishing carbon tax so parents can finally afford to feed their children instead of sending them to school hungry," said Poilievre spokesperson Sebastian Skamski in a statement.

During the first round of debate on the bill, Conservative MP Lianne Rood questioned the potential for jurisdictional overreach into provincial responsibilities, and suggested the better way to prevent students from going hungry, would to be to remove the government's price on pollution.

"If the member for Acadie-Bathurst, N.B. is truly serious about helping parents to afford nourishing meals for their kids and themselves, this is something he could push for: Axe the carbon tax," she said.

Fellow Conservative MP Tracy Gray suggested during the second hour of debate last week that the bill was "a placeholder," for the government's promise, and its effects "would not be felt anytime soon," suggesting again, removing the carbon tax, which they blame in part for seeing higher food costs downloaded onto Canadians, would be the preferred policy move.

In a statement reacting to the vote, Bill Jeffery, the executive director of the non-profit Centre for Health Science and Law questioned Conservative MPs' suggestions that has he put it, "killing climate-change policies will cure food price inflation," calling their argument "disingenuous."

"In September, the Governor of the Bank of Canada repeated the bank's estimate that the carbon tax inflated food prices by no more than 0.15 per cent," Jeffery said. 

He is now urging all MPs and senators to "quickly pass" the bill and push for the "appropriation of the first tranche of funding in the spring budget talks."  

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