NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is urging Ottawa to tackle the affordability crisis and fund a national school lunch program to feed hungry kids in the upcoming budget.

Canadian food banks are struggling to meet record-high demand and more than a million children live in poverty, said Singh on Wednesday alongside Vancouver Island MPs Rachel Blaney and Gord Johns during a visit to the LUSH Valley Food Action Society in Courtenay.

The cost of food is soaring and Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program, said Singh.

The Liberals haven’t followed through on a 2021 election promise to spend $1 billion over five years to ensure students get at least one nutritious meal, said Singh, adding the federal government was “dragging their feet” and “stringing people along.”

“We've got to give people some relief. We've got to take off pressure on the shoulders of parents and those kids who aren't getting nutritious meals because they just can't afford it,” Singh said.

Last year, the provincial NDP government budgeted $214 million over three years to start tackling hunger at school. However, the federal government also needs to step up so every kid in Canada, not just some, is guaranteed a meal, Singh said.

A nationwide school program is also critical to eliminating reluctance or shame associated with accessing food support, said Maurita Prato, executive director of LUSH.

Maurita Prato, executive of LUSH Valley Food Action Society in Courtenay, says universal school lunch programs destigmatize and normalize food services to help alleviate poverty. Photo Rochelle Baker / Canada's National Observer

“Universal school meal programs are so important,” Prato said. “When every child has access to a program on a sliding scale, it normalizes a meal program and we see decreases in poverty that are stigma-free.”

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called on the Liberals to deliver on an outstanding promise to create a national school meal program backed with funding in the April budget as he toured a Vancouver Island food bank on Wednesday.

LUSH has a waitlist for its good food box program that, with funding from School District 71, delivers a grocery bag of fresh produce and eggs sourced from farms in the Comox Valley to 300 families weekly, she said.

But the society can’t keep pace with the demand as food costs rise, Prato said

More than 75 per cent of Canadians want a national school food program but the federal Conservatives have blocked any efforts to establish one, said Singh.

In early December, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre pushed the federal government to revoke the carbon tax saying it was driving up inflation and leaving Canadians hungry — the same week his party voted against Liberal MP Serge Cormier’s private member’s bill to develop a blueprint for a national school meal program.

Backed by the Liberals and NDP, Bill C-322 has passed to be studied by a House committee but it does not spell out funding for the program by the Trudeau Liberals.

The federal budget is set to be released April 16.

Singh said the NDP would be pushing the feds to make sure a national school food program would be funded but didn’t say he’d withdraw from the support agreement in place with the minority Liberal government over the issue.

While not one of the key issues outlined in the deal between the two parties, Singh said the NDP has often secured more on the issues spelled out in the deal, pointing to the recent pharmacare plan.

“We’ve made it really clear that what we negotiated was a floor, not a ceiling,” Singh said, adding the NDP will push the Liberals to work with provinces and community providers to fill food gaps for students.

“We’re calling for the federal government to be a true partner, to fulfil the dream to make sure no child goes to school hungry and leaves school hungry.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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