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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks to 10-year-old Chakai as he cuts fruit next to chef Jason Simpson for a lunch program at the Boys and Girls Club East Scarborough, in Toronto on April 1.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised the coming federal budget would include funding for a national school food program that advocates say is needed to support schools and community groups struggling to provide nutritious meals to children.

Speaking at an event in Toronto on Monday, Mr. Trudeau, along with Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Families Minister Jenna Sudds, said the program is expected to provide meals to 400,000 more kids each year, and would begin as soon as the coming school year.

The event on Monday was part of the Liberal government’s series of announcements ahead of the budget planned for April 16.

“When a kid walks up before class and says ‘I’m hungry,’ that means we all have more work to do as a school community, as a country,” Mr. Trudeau said. “We want everyone to be able to eat well so they can reach their full potential.”

Evidence suggests that a nutritious school food program promotes better student attendance and participation, as well as providing physical benefits and lessons in healthy eating.

What currently exists in Canada is a patchwork of programs that serve a snack, breakfast or lunch to roughly one million schoolchildren, or 21 per cent of the country’s student population. The programs are mostly funded by the provinces, but also rely on donations and teams of volunteers.

Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program. Mr. Trudeau made an election commitment in 2021 of investing $1-billion over five years.

On Monday, the government said that it would work with the provinces, territories and Indigenous communities to expand access to their school food programs.

“For moms and dads across Canada, especially those who are struggling with the high cost of groceries, this will mean peace of mind knowing that their kids will have healthy food and are well taken care of,” Ms. Freeland said.

“For kids, it means not being hungry at school, because when you’re hungry, it’s really, really hard to learn.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has been calling on the government to include a food program in the coming budget, saying that it would provide a healthy meal to children and offer relief to families struggling with the high cost of food.

“We’ve been making this demand now for months,” Mr. Singh said on Monday, ahead of the Prime Minister’s announcement.

Many programs have seen demand for school meals or snacks increase as the cost of food has risen. Educators sometimes find ways to help fill the gaps by providing food they’ve bought, or maybe pressing a toonie into a child’s palm when pizza day arrives at school.

Debbie Field, co-ordinator of the Montreal-based advocacy group Coalition for Healthy School Food, called it a “big day” for children and their families. A University of Toronto analysis found that in 2022, one in four children or 1.8 million lived in food-insecure households, an increase from the almost 1.4 million a year earlier.

“It’s a huge investment in the well-being of the next generation,” Ms. Field said in an interview. “The feds can see they’re not being asked to create a new national program on their own. They’re being asked to partner with provinces, territories and Indigenous communities.”

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