A national school feeding framework is on Chrystia Freeland’s desk. Will Ottawa say yes?

OTAWA –

A framework for a national school feeding program has landed on Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s desk, and with the federal budget just weeks away, advocates hope the proposal gets the green light.

The proposed plan comes as food prices continue to cause political headaches for governments across the country, said Tyler Meredith, a political thinker and former economic adviser to Freeland and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“A proposal has been presented to Minister Freeland and it is now up to us to see if it will be funded in the budget,” Meredith said.

“I’m cautiously optimistic.”

The federal government consulted with provinces, territories, municipalities, Indigenous groups and other stakeholders to develop the framework over the past year.

The Liberal government has long promised to move in this direction, and Trudeau campaigned along those lines during his 2021 re-election campaign, promising to commit $1 billion over five years to such a program.

That money is urgently needed, community food groups argue, as Canadians increasingly struggle to put food on the table and many families find themselves in lines at food banks.

“It would help significantly address something that many families are struggling with, which is both the high cost of food and, frankly, also the significant time and effort that goes into preparing lunches for kids,” Meredith said.

Freeland declined to comment on the plan currently before her. A spokesperson for her office said the 2024 budget due April 16 will focus on making life affordable, building housing and creating jobs.

While education is not under federal jurisdiction, a national lunch program would allow Ottawa to partner with provinces and territories, many of which are already doing the work alongside community groups.

A national school program would be a similar expansion of Ottawa’s national child care program, Meredith said.

The effort to reduce childcare costs to $10 a day required investments from federal, provincial and territorial governments.

Providing school lunches as a national program allows Ottawa to use its purchasing power “in a smart way that helps address and alleviate concerns associated with inflation,” Meredith said.

“They can potentially purchase food and distribute it at a scale where individual families simply don’t have the bargaining power to compete in the market when they go to fill their shopping cart,” he said.

Last year, British Columbia, Manitoba and Nova Scotia allocated money to school lunches, but local organizations argue a federal partner would feed more mouths.

“We believe there is no other initiative the federal government can take that, for the money spent, will have as large an impact on supporting food affordability and helping families as investing in a national school feeding program. in the 2024 budget”. said Carolyn Webb, mobilization coordinator for the Healthy School Food Coalition, Canada’s largest school feeding network.

Webb, who called on Ottawa earlier this week to fund a national program, said it would also help local producers and farmers and create more jobs for food service workers.

“I think if we see a signal in the budget that the government wants to move in this direction, I think it can catalyze a pretty quick conversation with the provinces about how they all invest,” Meredith said.

“This is the biggest issue facing families and voters of all stripes, and why they are frustrated and what they want governments to focus on.”


This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2024.

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