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Liberals propose national school meal program as Canada remains back of pack on children’s nutrition

By Jolson Lim      

In yesterday’s federal budget, the government announced its 'intention to work with provinces and territories' toward the creation of the program, though no money was earmarked for it.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau, centre, with, from left, Liberal MPs Linda Lapointe, Greg Fergus, and Catherine McKenna touring an Ottawa Farm Boy location in August 2018. Mr. Morneau's recent budget proposed a national school meal program. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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The Liberal government has proposed creating a national school meal program, which, if implemented, would see Canada join most other advanced economies in the world in having a countrywide school food initiative.

In yesterday’s federal budget, the government announced its “intention to work with provinces and territories towards the creation of a National School Food Program.” The one-sentence declaration was tucked into Liberals’ sprawling 464-page federal budget, the last of this government before Canadians head to the polls in October.

No money was earmarked in the budget for the proposed policy. It’s also uncertain whether a national program can be achieved given funding costs and potential provincial opposition to the federal Liberals’ idea.

Although there is a patchwork of existing local and provincial programs in the country providing funding for food for school children from junior kindergarten to Grade 12, Canada is the only G7 country and member of the 30-plus-nation Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to lack a national school meal program, according to a 2016 report by two Simon Fraser University business professors. 

The proposed school program in the budget was grouped with the unveiling of a $134-million national food policy designed to increase Canadians’ access to healthy foods, promote domestically grown and harvested food, support food security in the North, and reduce food waste.

Debbie Field, co-ordinator for the Coalition for Healthy School Food, called the proposal a “huge deal,” comparing it to other major social welfare programs.

“It’s a major social policy initiative,” she said. “Sometimes one line in a budget like this creates national pharmacare or other things like that. It really is at that level.”

Ms. Field said a national school meal program can help address children’s access to healthy and nutritious foods. In terms of this metric, Canada lags behind most other rich countries.

A 2017 UNICEF report ranked Canada 37th of 41 wealthy countries when it comes to food security, ending hunger, and improving nutrition. The report suggested a national school meal program could contribute to improvements in children’s healthy eating.

Poor nutrition, chronic diseases, and food insecurity are often problems for people living on lower incomes and those belonging to marginalized populations. Studies have also shown that healthy eating can correlate with improved educational outcomes.

“It’s a great first step and the coalition is looking forward to working with the federal government,” said Ms. Field.

Liberal MP Julie Dabrusin, pictured at a committee meeting in 2017, has pushed for a national school meal program. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Liberal MP Julie Dabrusin (Toronto-Danforth, Ont.) has pushed her government to put in place a school meals program, and is currently sponsoring a petition calling for the creation of an “adequately-funded national cost-shared universal healthy school food program.” Retired Liberal Senator Art Eggleton also put forward a similar motion calling for such an initiative in June 2018.

In a March 20 phone interview, Ms. Dabrusin said the proposed program will “look different in different places.”

“The idea is to work with different provinces and territories with the programs that they want to establish,” she said. “And when you think about it, what the different types of foods people might eat in parts of the country might be different, the needs might be different as to how to best deliver it.”

Ms. Dabrusin said there are many reasons why children may not decide to eat or have access to healthy and nutritious foods, but that it’s important the proposed program is universally available and doesn’t stigmatize poor students.

The department of Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, pictured at Rideau Hall on March 1, is leading the discussion on creating a national school food program. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

“There is a tremendous cost to having kids being hungry in school,” she said. “And I hear it from teachers who keep granola bars in their desk to feed kids, because they know that if the kids are hungry [they] can’t concentrate and participate in class.”

In a pre-budget submission to the House Finance Committee, Ms. Field’s organization asked for the Liberal government to invest $360-million, through provincial and territorial transfers, into a school food program, with an eventual goal of universal coverage.

Ms. Field said the total national cost of such a school meal program would be around $1.8-billion a year. That calculation is based on multiplying the number of Canadian children enrolled in schools—currently about five million—by the number of school days and an estimated price per meal of $2.

Oliver Anderson, a spokesperson for Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau (Compton-Stanstead, Que.), said “our government believes that all Canadians should have access to safe, healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate, and local food.” He said the food policy includes taking the “first steps” towards a national school meal program.

“We will have more to share on this in the weeks and months to come,” he said in an email.

The previous Conservative government under Stephen Harper, however, was cool to the idea of a national school meal program, with a Health Canada departmental spokesperson telling The Tyee in 2014: “The provision of food in schools is a provincial and territorial responsibility.”

In 1946, the United States created its national school meal program. In 2016, 30 million American children participated in the initiative providing free or low-priced meals at a cost of $13.6-billion for taxpayers, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.

The program works by offering school districts and independent schools cash subsidies and government-bought food for each reimbursable meal they serve, which is required to meet federal standards.

The standards are a source of political contention, however, with the Trump administration loosening Obama-era requirements on grains, salt, and milk in 2017.

Ms. Field said Canada can follow the example of its G7 counterpart of France, or the example set by Finland, which she said have the best national programs in the world. She said their programs offer cooked, healthy, culturally appropriate, and often locally sourced foods.

Food insecurity is a challenge experienced at some level by four million Canadians, according to research done by PROOF, a University of Toronto-based research group studying policy choices to reduce the problem. It also found that household food insecurity affects one in six Canadian children.

Ms. Field described the current coverage of school food through provincial and locally funded school food programs as a “hodgepodge.”

“We all pride ourselves on our health-care system. We all pride ourselves on the fact that Canada has more progressive social policy than the U.S. on many issues,” Ms. Field said. “But we’re not doing well on this.”

jlim@hilltimes.com

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