Slow progress on a federal promise to create a national school food program is causing advocates to fear it may have been cut from the government's priority menu, exacerbating the country's affordability and hunger crisis.

Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program, putting it in 37th place out of the world's 41 wealthiest countries when it comes to feeding school children, according to UNICEF in 2017. Instead, the country relies on a patchwork of initiatives funded by provincial or territorial governments that depend heavily on volunteers to run.

The Liberals' 2021 re-election platform included a promise to spend $1 billion over five years to create a national school meal program and standards. But nearly three years later, advocates say the government has little to show for its promise.

"For a government that needs to worry about doing the right thing during the affordability crisis, this is probably the biggest single investment they can make," said Debbie Field, the co-ordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Food. Even a relatively modest investment of $200 million "could be a very easy way for the government to make things a lot better for many … in Canada."

School food programs are known to have wide-ranging benefits. From improving students' concentration in class or tackling public health issues like childhood obesity to fostering a sense of community helpful to kids' mental health, research shows their benefits disproportionately outweigh the cost.

The benefits are also long-lasting. According to a recent analysis of Sweden's decades-old program, school meals increased people's average lifetime earnings by about three per cent, rising to six per cent for people from low-income families.

The program generated "substantial long-term benefits,'' including improving educational and health outcomes, the authors found. For Field, the research emphasizes that while universal school meal programs have larger impacts on children from lower-income families, they should be "for all kids."

Developing a national program that could help foster these types of benefits would cost about $2.6 billion, or about $5 per child per day, according to estimates by the Coalition for Healthy School Food. In addition to ingredients, that money could ensure schools have the kitchens and other necessary infrastructure for the programs to operate.

Some provinces are already pushing ahead on the issue. In April, B.C. announced a $214-million investment in its school food programs, while Ontario pledged to add $5 million to existing school food initiatives earlier this month. But provincial initiatives — while "historic" — can't on their own make up for a federally funded program implemented in partnership with provinces, territories and Indigenous people, Field said.

School food advocates fear the federal government might renege on its election promise to establish a national school food program.

There is widespread support for the idea. About 270 organizations and municipal governments have endorsed or joined the Coalition for Healthy School Food, while there is "broad support" for a national program among Liberal and NDP MPs.

When the outline for the promised national program could arrive is anyone's guess. Early last year, a spokesperson for then-agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, one of the ministries involved in the process, said developing a national school food program was "a priority." The government has held public consultations on the program since, with a report about the findings expected imminently.

Canada's failure to show up at the world's first global conference for school food, hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris earlier this month, combined with the program's slow development have left advocates worried the government is giving up on school food. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Employment and Social Development clarified to Canada's National Observer Wednesday it could not send a representative to the conference because of a "scheduling conflict."

"Developing a National School Food Policy and working toward a national nutritious school meal program remains an important commitment for the Government of Canada, and we continue to work with provinces, territories, Indigenous partners, municipalities and stakeholders to build a national school food policy that reflects regional and local needs," they wrote.

The "stumbling block" preventing more action towards a program appears to lie higher up with a cabinet — and prime minister — concerned about their budget's affordability, said Field. It's a position that has left her and other advocates "disappointed" that the government has not moved faster on building a program that could dramatically improve millions of Canadians' lives and well-being.

"This is an initiative that could really be a great legacy for Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau as he looks to this next budget," she said.

Updates and corrections

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November 1, 2023, 04:00 pm

Editor's note: This story was updated on November 1, 2023 to include comment from the federal Ministry of Employment and Social Development.

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