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School food programs left waiting for Liberals to make good on $1B promise for national plan

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For nearly two years, the federal government has promised to create and fund a national school food policy and healthy meal program. After the pledge was left out of the 2023 federal budget, however, advocates warn the future of schools' ability to keep offering meals to students is in jeopardy.

"In a budget of billions of dollars, wise social policy would have included the Liberal election platform’s $1 billion commitment over five years to advance a national school food program," Coalition for Healthy School Food co-ordinator Debbie Field said in a post-budget statement. 

"Such an investment would also have reduced pressures on families' budgets," Field said, on behalf of a coalition of more than 250 non-profit organizations across the country advocating for a universal, cost-shared school food program.

The coalition says its members are frustrated by the Liberals putting off this promise at a time when many school food programs are already at risk of closing before the end of the school year because their annual program funds have already been spent, due to an influx in students accessing school food programs, and skyrocketing food costs.

The Breakfast Club of Canada has also voiced concern over the budget not including funding for this pledge, saying the result is, "children across Canada will have to wait."

"At the rate the federal government is moving, Canada risks remaining the only G7 country without a school nutrition program for months, if not, years to come," said Breakfast Club of Canada president and CEO Tommy Kulczyk in a statement. 

Seeing another federal budget without committed funding means existing school nutrition programs across the country will forego assistance for another year, according to the organization which helps reach 580,000 children in more than 3,500 meal programs across the country.

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 — that advocates say is also in need of substantial increases given the impacts of inflation — as well as private sector and community donations, and volunteers' time.

In the lead up to the budget, the Coalition for Healthy School Food led an online "#NourishKidsNow" campaign that encouraged outreach to MPs and the minister of finance asking for the federal government to make good on its 2021 election commitment to dedicate funding to a universal health school food program.

Citing food price inflation and studies indicating Canadians are changing their eating habits as a result of these economic strains, advocates say a national school food program is needed now even than when the pledge was initially made.

While the 2023 budget presented by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland made no mention of a national school food plan, it did acknowledge that groceries are "more expensive today" in rebranding and renewing a one-time GST rebate as a "grocery rebate" for lower income Canadians.

The rebate initiative comes with a $2.5 billion price tag and, once passed in Parliament, would see eligible Canadians receive, on average, a few hundred dollars they can spend on groceries or anything else. 

LIBERALS PROMISED 'NUTRITIOUS MEAL PROGRAM'

During the last federal election, the Liberals campaigned on a pledge to work with other levels of government as well as Indigenous partners and stakeholders 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."

At the time, the party's platform stated that three million children in Canada were living without guaranteed access to nutritious school meals.

A few months later, this pledge — minus the timeline and specific price tag — made it into the mandate letters of Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Karina Gould.

Bibeau was asked to take the lead, with Gould's assistance, on working "to develop a National School Food Policy and to work toward a national school nutritious meal program" as part of a broader goal of strengthening Canada's food system. 

When the commitment made it into the ministers' mandate letters, healthy food alliance Sustain Ontario called it "a historic moment for school food in Canada." 

Despite a mention in the 2022 federal budget, no funding was allocated.

Instead, the 2022 fiscal document just said, "over the next year" Bibeau and Gould would work on the policy and "explore how more Canadian children can receive nutritious food at school."

WHAT WORK DONE SO FAR? CONSULTATIONS

Between November and December 2022, Employment and Social Development Canada held online consultations on the topic to inform what it said at the time was a plan to build a policy that "will help guide the expansion of school food programs in Canada."

The questionnaire participants were asked to fill out was premised on a "discussion paper" from the federal government that noted school meal programs can "act as social equalizers" and help reduce family food costs while supporting local farmers.

The input received through the survey was supplementary to discussions with parents, teachers and other school officials, organizations that deliver school meal programs, and the food sector.

In a statement to CTVNews.ca about the status of this promise, Gould's press secretary Philippe-Alexandre Langlois said that work is "well underway" to develop "a policy framework and program."

"Over 5,000 respondents completed our consultation survey, and we held consultation sessions with over 130 organizations across Canada. We heard how important it is for a child’s development, education, and health to have access to nutritious meals at school. We look forward to reporting back to Canadians on what we heard in the consultations," Langlois said.

Gould's office did not directly answer why no funding has been earmarked towards this pledge to-date, nor would the minister's spokesperson say whether the government still intended to follow through on spending $1 billion to see this commitment come to fruition.

Instead, Langlois pointed to other affordability measures and social support initiatives the government has offered to help address poverty and food insecurity, pointing to the grocery rebate as the latest example.

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