With this week’s budget, the Liberal government has released for the first time details of its national food policy, including plans to tackle food waste and food fraud, and a pledge to create a national school food program – though the latter comes without any promise of funding.
In total, the budget pledges $134-million over five years toward the implementation of Ottawa’s long-awaited national food policy – a guideline the government made shortly after its election in 2015, but which had yet to be unveiled.
Amid the food-related promises includes a pledge to deliver healthy meals to kids in schools across the country. It’s the first time such a promise has ever been made in a federal budget, according to the advocates who have spent years lobbying for it.
“These are words that many of us have been working many, many, many years to hear,” said Debbie Field, co-ordinator for the Coalition for Healthy School Food.
Her group, among others, has long argued that free breakfast and lunch for school-aged children can help to address a wide range of problems: food insecurity, obesity and other health-related issues, and a lack of awareness about the importance of healthy, nutritious food.
Currently, a patchwork of programs exists for kids in schools. For the most part, these plans have been developed by municipalities and provinces – and in some cases, with help from local community and private-sector organizations. In Ontario for example, some schools provide a mid-morning snack as part of a program that was originally offered only in lower-income areas. Some cities across the country, meanwhile, offer breakfast or lunch programs.
“We need to have national standards. And we need national funding,” Ms. Fields said.
Her coalition had originally asked for $360-million from the federal government. That would represent 20 per cent of what they’ve estimated a national program would cost each year. The remainder, they propose, would be covered by provinces, municipalities and other stakeholder groups.
“For me to have been totally happy, we would have seen a commitment of $360-million," she said. "But even though there’s no money, we’ve got to start somewhere,” Ms. Fields said.
Others were less optimistic.
“I personally think it doesn’t add up to much at all,” said Nick Saul, the president of Community Food Centres Canada. "I’m not doing back flips that they’re saying ‘We are going to investigate this.’”
Mr. Saul had a similar criticism for some of the other food-related pledges from the budget.
“This is the problem, generally – the facts, the nuance, the details,” he said. “The details are very, very scant.”
A spokesman for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau did not respond to a request for more details, or to a question on why the school food program came without a funding commitment.
“Our government believes that all Canadians should have access to safe, healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate and local food,” the statement said.
Among the other promises made as part of the national food policy: A fund to support local food infrastructure ($50-million); a “Buy Canadian” marketing campaign ($25-million); and $15-million toward supporting isolated Northern communities. They’ve also promised $24-million to address food fraud, $20-million to reduce food waste, and a pilot project to bring in agricultural workers on a full-time, nonseasonal basis, with a path to permanent residency.