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Published June 20, 2024

Liberals plan talks to launch school food program before end of next school year

By Laura Osman
Families, Children and Social Development Minister Jenna Sudds arrives to a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The government hopes to see kids eating meals under a universal, national school food program before the end of the next school year, but it will take time for organizations to scale up their operations, the families minister said Thursday.

The Liberals set aside $1 billion over five years for the program, which they promised during the 2021 election campaign.

The deals will be similar in nature to the child-care agreements the government signed with provinces, territories and Indigenous communities to lower the cost of daycare, Families Minister Jenna Sudds said in an interview Thursday.

"We will negotiate these agreements, incorporating our vision and our principles into these agreements, and then it will be incumbent on the provinces to move forward," she said. 

The school food program will largely rely on existing organizations that already feed kids, and is expected to provide food to an additional 400,000 children. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the new policy that will guide those negotiations at a press conference in Nova Scotia on Thursday.

"One of the really big things about school food programs is that they be universal, that nobody has to justify what neighbourhood they live in, or what salaries their parents make to be able to access a little extra help," Trudeau said.

That means lunch, breakfast or snack programs should be available to all the children in a school, said Sudds.

"That's a key principle for so many reasons," she said. 

The negotiations are set to begin at a time when all political parties acknowledge the cost of groceries has become untenable for some families, though there is little consensus about how to fix the situation.

The goal is to start seeing the number of meals provided at schools expand before the next summer break, but Sudds acknowledged it will take time, even after the negotiations are finished.

"The funding is one piece, the agreements is another piece, but this actually happening on the ground is another monumental effort," she said.

"We have so many incredible organizations right now across this country doing this work. They also need the support and the time to be able to scale this to provide even more food and (to) even more schools."

As with the child-care agreements, Sudds expects the negotiations and final deals will play out very differently from province to province, and will be tailored to best serve the needs of particular communities.

The specifics about what the federal government wants to see out of each deal are still under consideration and subject to negotiations, she said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2024.

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