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Federal Liberals announces $1B national school food plan

Trudeau pledges to feed 400,000 more kids with 5-year program starting in this year’s budget
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks to ten year old Chakai as he cuts fruit next to chef Jason Simpson while preparing food for a lunch program at the Boys and Girls Club East Scarborough, in Toronto, Monday, April 1, 2024. Trudeau says the upcoming federal budget will include funding for a national school food program that aims to provide meals to 400,000 more kids per year across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

The upcoming federal budget will include funding for a national school food program that will aim to provide meals to 400,000 more kids per year across the country, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday.

Trudeau made the announcement in Toronto with Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Families Minister Jenna Sudds as part of the Liberal government’s ongoing pre-budget tour.

Ottawa plans to spend $1 billion over the next five years on the program.

While education doesn’t fall under federal jurisdiction, a national program would allow Ottawa to partner up with provinces and territories, many of which are already doing the work alongside community groups.

In the past year, British Columbia, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have allocated money toward school lunches, but on-the-ground organizations have argued for a federal partner.

“We’re going to get this done by working together with provincial, territorial and Indigenous partners, and expanding access to school food programs across the country,” Freeland said.

“And we want to get started as early as the 2024-25 school year.”

The Liberal government has long promised to launch such a program, and Trudeau campaigned on that pledge during the 2021 election.

New Democrats have been pushing the Liberal government to fulfil that promise ahead of the federal budget, which Freeland is set to present on April 16.

As cost-of-living issues continue to dominate the public discourse and the federal Conservatives maintain a sizable lead over the Liberals in opinion polls, Trudeau is pitching the budget as an effort to restore “fairness” for younger generations.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has focused on the plight of young people in today’s economy, commonly referring to millennials who continue to live with their parents because they can’t afford a home.

That’s spurred the Liberals to try out a new strategy ahead of the budget to garner media attention, dispatching cabinet ministers to all corners of Canada to promise and promote new federal spending measures.

Last week, Trudeau announced new tools aimed at renters, including a plan to work with financial institutions to make rent payments count toward a credit score.

Monday’s announcement on the creation of a national school food program was applauded by community and advocacy groups.

“These programs can improve children’s learning and mental health and reduce their risk of developing chronic disease, including heart disease and stroke,” said Doug Roth, CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

The Breakfast Club of Canada, which has lobbied the government for the creation of the program since 2017, also hailed the announcement.

“This significant advancement marks a turning point in the country’s commitment to the well-being of all children as one in three are at risk of going to school on an empty stomach,” the school nutrition organization said in a news release.

According to Statistics Canada, 18 per cent of households in 2022 reported experiencing food insecurity during the previous 12 months.

The Liberal government offered few details on what a national school food program would look like and how federal funds would be allocated across the country.

Sudds later said many of her provincial counterparts are thrilled about the prospect of the national program and are looking to the federal government for help to expand their own initiatives.

She also said the federal government is taking a flexible approach with the program so that it meets the diverse needs of different regions.

“The needs are different, certainly in different parts of the country. It may be breakfast, it may be lunch, it may be snacks,” Sudds said.

“We’ll look to our partners to engage in that dialogue as to what would be of best use in these unique circumstances.”

During a news conference later on Monday, Poilievre called the program “federal food bureaucracy” and blamed the Liberal government’s price on carbon for food insecurity.

“My common sense plan is to axe the carbon tax to lower the cost of food for everyone so that we can reverse the malnutrition that Justin Trudeau’s eight years have caused,” Poilievre told reporters.

Before the latest increase in the carbon levy on Monday, Statistics Canada estimated that carbon pricing increased the price of food by about 0.3 per cent since its inception.

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