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NDP calls on government to fund school lunch program in upcoming budget

B.C. Finance Minister Katrine Conroy and school principal Vicki Ives serve up a hot lunch for students at Ruth King Elementary during a photo-op ahead of the release of the provincial budget in Langford, B.C., on Feb. 27, 2023.  (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press - image credit)
B.C. Finance Minister Katrine Conroy and school principal Vicki Ives serve up a hot lunch for students at Ruth King Elementary during a photo-op ahead of the release of the provincial budget in Langford, B.C., on Feb. 27, 2023. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press - image credit)

The NDP is calling on the federal government to announce a national school lunch program in the upcoming federal budget, to be released on April 16.

The party says a national program would help children learn by providing them with healthy meals every day, while offering some relief to parents who are struggling with high food prices.

"Parents are doing everything they can to take care of their kids, but the cost of food just keeps going up," NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a media statement released Wednesday.

"In a country as rich as ours, no child should ever have to go to school hungry."

While the program is not one of the conditions of the Liberal-NDP supply and confidence agreement — which sees New Democrats support the Liberal government on key votes in exchange for action on NDP policy priorities — Singh told a press conference in B.C. on Wednesday that his party will "ramp up the pressure" on the federal government to roll out a national program.

"I want the government to understand that this is our demand, we're pushing for it, we want to see it happen," he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has shown some interest already in a school meals program. Its 2021 election platform included a promise to invest $1 billion in a national school meal program over five years; it has yet to follow through on that promise.

In December of last year, a bill to develop a national framework for a school food program, tabled by Liberal MP Serge Cormier, made it to the committee stage in the House of Commons.

Liberal and NDP MPs voted in favour of the bill, while Conservatives voted against it.

The NDP's demand for a national plan comes as food bank usage surges across the country. A 2023 report from Food Banks Canada said that a third of food bank users are children.

Lindsay and her children pick up food from the Surrey Food Bank.
Lindsay and her children pick up food from the Surrey Food Bank.

A woman and her children pick up food from a food bank in Surrey, B.C. in 2020. (Submitted by Surrey Food Bank)

Canada is the only country in the G7 that doesn't have a national school nutrition program, according to the Breakfast Club of Canada.

Some communities rely on volunteers to operate local school food programs.

And some provinces already have school food programs. B.C. pledged $214 million last year to expand lunch programs in schools across the province. The money is to be rolled out over three years.

Prince Edward Island also has a school food program that provides healthy meals to students from kindergarten to Grade 12 and operates on a pay-what-you-can model.

In its annual operating budget presented last week, the P.E.I. government added another $1 million to the school food program in response to an increase in demand.

"A national school food program with a $200 million head start should be a priority for this government — or any Canadian government — given the ample benefits we have seen from other countries that have adopted similar initiatives," Debbie Field, coordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, said in a Feb. 27 media statement.

The coalition is a national group of non-profit organizations that work to improve student access to nutritious school meals.

In its statement, the group calls on the Liberal government to match existing provincial and territorial funding for school food programs.

"Canadian families are struggling. With inflation pushing food prices to stratospheric levels, we know that a national school food program would help children and youth access nutritious food, which would then support their mental health, behaviour and study habits," Field said.