The federal government unveiled details of a new national school food program Thursday that it hopes will be providing meals to more kids in more schools before the end of the next school year, but Families, Children and Social Development Minister Jenna Sudds cautioned that it will take time for organizations to scale up their existing operations.

The government set aside $1 billion over five years for the new program, which it promised during the 2021 election campaign

Speaking at a Nova Scotia high school, Sudds said the program will be founded on agreements reached with provinces and territories similar to those negotiated to lower the cost of daycare. The specifics will be tailored to the needs of each province or territory and will build on meal programs already in place, with the aim of providing meals to an additional 400,000 children.

  • What do you think about the National School Food Program? Let us know in an email to [email protected].

“We do expect the provinces and territorial governments to maintain their current funding and to maintain the existing programs as we make additional investments to expand these programs and expand the reach to more communities and more children,” she said. 

Universal access a key objective

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with staff and students at Northumberland Regional High School in Alma, N.S., home to a school food program led by students and staff, as he laid out some of the details of the new policy that will guide those negotiations. 

“One of the really big things about school food programs is that they be universal, that nobody has to justify what neighbourhood they live in or what salaries their parents make to be able to access a little extra help,” Trudeau said.

That means lunch, breakfast or snack programs should be available to all the children in a school, not a targeted group, said Sudds.

The new policy was developed after consultations with experts, stakeholders and the public in 2022 and its objectives reiterate points emphasized during those consultations, including:

  • Working toward universal access. That includes building on existing expertise, prioritizing communities that have challenges accessing nutritious food and delivering breakfast, lunch or snack programs to all students in a way that eliminates stigma. 
  • Expanding investment so programs operate sustainably, including exploring different funding models and boosting investment in infrastructure and staffing.
  • Helping students develop healthy eating habits and knowledge about food and nutrition, including promoting food literacy, skills and positive food-related attitudes. 

Another priority is emphasizing local, community products and farms, Trudeau said Thursday. 

“Every effort should be made … to reach out to local growers to emphasize how much schools are part of a community.”

WATCH | School food advocate reacts to long-awaited, federally funded program: 

CBC’s Deana Sumanac-Johnson speaks with school food nutrition program expert Debbie Field

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Policy informed by best practices around the world

Debbie Field, co-ordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, praised the new policy. The group works with non-profit organizations to increase students’ access to nutritious school meals and has long advocated for a national program.

“There’s a lot of language about going to the most needy children right now, but also, there’s a lot of language about universality, no targeting, food literacy and local procurement, so it’s a big, visionary document,” she said. 

“They really heard from us and experts around Canada and the world about best practices.”

When the federal budget was announced this spring, the government allocated $79 million for the school food program’s initial (2024-2025) year, Field said. 

“Once the Budget Implementation Act is passed, Minister Sudds has the $79 million in hand — without needing to go back to Parliament — and over the course of the summer, she’ll begin these negotiations,” she said.

Filed said she feels confident that “money will start flowing” in the fall if not right at the start of the school year in September.

Provincial, territorial and municipal governments have pledged $288 million annually to keep the current patchwork of school food programs across the country going, so the injection of the federal money, Field said, will help “everybody catch up to a bit more of a level playing field.”

Sudds, for her part, said the goal is to expand the number of meals provided at schools before the next summer break but acknowledged that scaling up existing programs won’t happen overnight.

“The funding is one piece, the agreements is another piece, but this actually happening on the ground is another monumental effort,” she said.

“We have so many incredible organizations right now across this country doing this work. They also need the support and the time to be able to scale this to provide even more food and (to) even more schools.”

WATCH | Why high grocery prices are hurting school food programs: 

How high grocery prices hurt school food programs

The rising cost of living has more families relying on school food programs, but those services are also feeling the pinch from skyrocketing grocery prices. CBC’s Deana Sumanac-Johnson shows the challenges facing programs, their importance and breaks down the renewed calls for nationwide school meal funding.

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