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The federal Liberals have, once again, promised a national school food program.

After identical promises in 2019 and 2021, this time around, apparently, there is actually going to be money allocated – $1-billion over five years – when the federal budget is tabled on April 16.

While the investment is welcome, let’s be clear: This is not a program, and it’s not national, nor universal.

It’s an offer to pump some money into an existing hodgepodge of local, regional and provincial programs that feed about one million children daily. The new federal cash, allocated properly, should feed about 400,000 more kids, about the same number who are on ever-growing wait lists.

It’s not clear how many Canadian kids go to school hungry, or eat poorly, but in their own materials back in 2021, the Liberals said that more than three million Canadian schoolchildren were “living without guaranteed access to nutritious school meals.”

What is clear is that feeding children at school is beneficial. Studies from around the world have shown that doing so results in better academic results, higher graduation rates, and higher incomes for graduates.

And empty bellies being filled.

Anecdotally, teachers report that children are better able to concentrate and less disruptive if they aren’t hungry. You need to eat well to be able to learn well.

It’s not just low-income children who benefit from school meals. Bag lunches are too often loaded with sugary, salty treats, and execrable ultra-processed-foods masquerading as complete, nutritious meals.

Done properly, school meals can even be an integral part of the curriculum, teaching kids about nutrition, agriculture, climate change, and more.

So far, we have very little information on how the new federal money will be doled out, but it will likely be some sort of transfer to the provinces and territories. There should be some pretty clear conditions – first and foremost that the new money feeds more kids. We can’t just have federal dollars substitute for provincial/territorial dollars when so many kids are going to school hungry.

British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec have all bolstered their contributions to school food programs in the past year, but provider groups are barely keeping up with the soaring cost of food.

B.C. has been the most proactive, budgeting $214-million over three years for its Feeding Futures program, or more than $70-million annually. Much more populous Ontario, by comparison, raised its contribution to $38-million a year.

But regional differences are the least of it. There is no uniformity in school food programs around the country.

Some schools offer breakfast, some lunch, some snacks. There is everything from hot meals to grab-and-go; some of the meals are free, some are subsidized, some are paid for fully; food is sometimes provided by corporate sponsors, or government programs promoting local agriculture, or parent volunteers. The funding comes from a mix of charitable donations and government allocations, municipal or provincial. Many schools feed only poor kids, creating a stigma. The programs vary widely in their design, participation and quality of the food.

The most ambitious program in the country is probably Bon Appétit in PEI, which offers “affordable” school lunches to every child in the province from kindergarten through to Grade 12. But, at $5.75 per meal, there is no free school lunch. (Though there is a pay-what-you-can option.)

Still, Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program. It ranks 37th out of 41 of the world’s wealthiest countries when it comes to feeding kids at school, according to the Coalition for Healthy School Food.

The gold standard of school food programs is held by Sweden, where school meals have been a tradition since the late 1800s, and feeding schoolchildren has been mandated in the country’s education legislation since 1997.

The national food program Skolmatsverige serves 1.3-million nutritious meals daily to every student aged six to 16, and most students aged 16 to 19. There is a hot main course, a salad bar with at least five choices, and milk or water. All food is cooked on-site (no prepackaged foods allowed) and served on dishes with cutlery to reduce waste. The cost is roughly $900 per student annually.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of our piecemeal, postal-code-lottery approach, we could bring ourselves to aspire to this level of excellence?

But so obsessed with the constitutional division of powers, turf protection and penny-pinching are our public officials that they’d prefer hungry children over investing in uniform, quality programs.

Our well-intentioned, but not-good-enough approach should leave us hungering for better.

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