Ottawa unveils $1B for national school food program

Click to play video: 'Canada to spend $1B on national school lunch program'
Canada to spend $1B on national school lunch program
WATCH: The federal government is promising to spend $1 billion over the next five years for a national school lunch program, which is supposed to feed an additional 400,000 children per year. Mackenzie Gray reports on how advocates are welcoming the announcement after decades of pushing for the initiative; and how this program could have benefits beyond the classroom – Apr 1, 2024

The Liberal government is pledging $1 billion over the next five years for a national school food program in the upcoming budget, as Canadian families struggle to afford the rising cost of groceries.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland made the announcement in Toronto on Easter Monday, saying it will “mean peace of mind” for parents across the country.

The goal is to feed an additional 400,000 children a year, by expanding programs offered by provinces and schools boards.

One in four kids in Canada do not get enough to eat, says the federal government.

“We’re introducing this new national school food program so that every single child across Canada can have a fair chance at a good, healthy life,” said Freeland. “We want to get started as early as the 2024-2025 school year.”

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Click to play video: 'Kelowna residents frustrated by food prices this Easter'
Kelowna residents frustrated by food prices this Easter

Study after study has shown children perform better in the classroom when they have full stomachs, says Debbie Field, coordinator for the Coalition for Healthy School Food.

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“It’s not an exaggeration to say that this will change the future of Canadian life and Canadian children’s health,” she said.

British Columbia, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have set aside money for students’ lunches in the past year, as food prices remain stubbornly expensive.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the current programs are falling short.

“There are still needs that are unmet,” he said at Monday’s announcement. “So we look at it as a federal responsibility to step up.”

The Liberals committed to a national school food program in the 2019 budget and again in their 2021 election platform.

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The New Democrats say the initiative should have been rolled out before the 2024 budget, which will be tabled April 16.

“It has been years and years and nothing,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, speaking with media an hour before the Liberals made the announcement. “Canada is the only G7 country that doesn’t have a national school food program.”

Click to play video: 'Feds focus on affordability in Canada ahead of upcoming liberal budget'
Feds focus on affordability in Canada ahead of upcoming liberal budget

Advocates against child poverty have long pushed for the federal government to take this step. Those calls have grown louder in the face of high inflation and a lack of affordable housing.

Last year, a record 1.9 million Canadians visited food banks in the month of March alone.

Amberley Ruetz with the University of Saskatchewan researches school food programs and says Monday’s announcement will go a “long way right now.”

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“We know that a national school meal program with access to free breakfast and lunch at schools can save families upwards of $190 per child per month,” Ruetz told Global News.

These types of measures produce “returns” that extend into adulthood, she added.

“Kids who learn better at school then go on to earn higher incomes and that means more revenue into the economy.”

The program is the latest in a series of pre-budget announcements by the Liberals tacking affordability issues, including relief for renters and a pledge to expand $10-a-day child care.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre did not answer when asked Monday whether he supports a national school food program, instead he blamed Trudeau for making life more expensive by introducing the carbon tax, which increased April 1.

“That’s a major failure for Justin Trudeau. This is after eight years of promising that he’d help the middle class. Well now, by his own admission, one in four kids don’t get enough food,” said Poilievre at a news conference in Nanaimo, BC.

“My commonsense plan is to axe the carbon tax, to lower the cost of food for everyone,” he added.

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