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Planned free school lunch program in N.S. a ‘great’ step, but questions remain

Click to play video: 'N.S. launches plan for province-wide universal lunch program'
N.S. launches plan for province-wide universal lunch program
Nova Scotia is gearing up to launch a province-wide universal school lunch program as part of the recently announced 2024-25 budget. Although advocates are calling it a "great first step", some are saying more work needs to be done to address food insecurity. Amber Fryday reports – Mar 1, 2024

Nova Scotia is gearing up to launch a province-wide universal school lunch program as part of its recently announced 2024-25 budget.

On Thursday, Nova Scotia’s Finance and Treasury Board Minister Allan MacMaster tabled the province’s $16.5 billion plan — which included an $18.8 million investment toward developing a new lunch program for students in public schools. The initiative is expected to launch throughout the course of the next four years.

Becky Druhan, the province’s education minister, described the move as a “historic step” and said students will be granted access to affordable meals in every school once the program is fully implemented.

“We do need to phase our implementation to get it right. We’re starting with a focus on elementary schools,” she said, adding that the first part of the program’s launch will occur when school returns in the fall.

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“When it’s completely rolled out, every student across the province will have access to universal school lunch.”

She said the school lunch program will be affordable for all families and free “for those who need it.”

In addition, Druhan mentioned on Thursday that the provincial government will collaborate with community groups and volunteer organizations that already providing similar services at schools in the province.

“Existing school food programs, they are successful because of the involvement of volunteers, communities, donors, and of partners. Those folks bring so much benefit beyond the provision of food,” she said to reporters on Thursday.

“We want to make sure we leverage that … those relationships will continue to be incredibly important.”

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‘More needs to be done’

Lina Hamid, a representative of the United Way, described the program proposal as a “fantastic start” but said she would like to see more initiatives brought forth to fill the void outside of school hours.

“There’s a lot of food insecurity out there,” she said.

“It might not always be visible, so having something in place for the children during the school year is great. However, it doesn’t address the summer months, weekends, holidays, and everything in between the school days.”

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Although Hamid says the program is a step in the right direction, she noted that it doesn’t offer a full-stop solution. She said the province needs to offer more financial support for families to prevent food insecurity altogether.

“For households to have the freedom and choice to prepare the meals they want … we know income support can do that. I think it’s a fantastic program, a great first start, but there’s a lot of food insecurity out there and more needs to be done to address it,” she said.

“It’s a pretty big deal. That’s (the lunch program) something we should be very excited about, but we need to think about how we can further address food insecurity and take it a step further.”

According to data presented in a recent report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Nova Scotia has the fourth-highest child poverty rate in the country and the highest in Atlantic Canada.

The child poverty rate in Nova Scotia rose to 20.5 per cent in 2021, representing more than one in five children.

Wendie Wilson, a community worker who works with Food Secure Canada, agreed the program is a good first step but said she’d like to see politicians outside Nova Scotia get on board with the plan.

“Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the federal government would be able to match that?” she asked, adding that she hopes businesses located near schools will receive an economic benefit once the program launches.

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“I want to see dollars being spent in the community in order to build capacity, skills, and sustainability as well.”

Although the program could provide some temporary relief, Wilson said the bigger issue is investing in larger solutions to prevent child poverty and food insecurity altogether.

“Food does not solve food insecurity,” she said.

“Getting a free lunch at school isn’t really solving the issue. The issue is really more around income. That’s why I’d like to see these dollars pull back into the community with those who are impacted the most by food insecurity.

“If we’re able to shop locally … then what we’re doing is increasing amongst those who are impacted the most.”

Brendan Maguire, a former Liberal MLA who recently joined Tim Houston’s Progressive Conservatives and was appointed as Minister of Community Service, applauded the inclusion of the universal school lunch program in the budget.

“A lot of us in that house have advocated for, for a long time, the lunch program. As a father of three, I know how much that will save me,” he said.

“This is something that is going to save Nova Scotians thousands of dollars a year.”

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