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Hungry for funding: Push is on for a national school food program

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Cathy Dobson 

With food prices on the rise and two federal ministers preparing Canada’s first national school food policy, there’s high hopes the next federal budget will contain funding to feed students, advocates told a Sarnia service club Tuesday.

“Locally, federal money would translate into more food for students,” said Leslie Palimaka, Sarnia-Lambton’s community development co-ordinator for the Ontario Student Nutrition Program.

Since 2004, the provincial government has contributed $220,000 a year to help pay for healthy meals and snacks for 9,974 children at 43 schools in Sarnia-Lambton. 

A large group of at least 500 volunteers and a “great framework” of professionals are in place to deliver the program, said Palimaka.

But the provincial contribution only covers about 12 cents per child per day.

“We are extremely happy for stabilized provincial dollars,” Palimaka said. “But we know a healthy snack costs $1 on average.”

That means most of the cost of any local school food program is left to the school and to fundraising. That’s a big burden at a time when schools need to fundraise for so many other things and the cost of food continues to rise.

Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program and is ranked by UNICEF as 37th out of the world’s 41 wealthiest countries when it comes to feeding children, said Debbie Field of the Coalition for Healthy School Food. The coalition is comprised of 240 non-profit organizations including the Sarnia-Lambton VON, which is the lead agency here and where Palimaka works.

Field and Palimaka were speaking Tuesday to members of the Golden K Kiwanis Club who help with several healthy school food programs locally. Research shows that eating enough healthy food is vital for brain development, facilitates better test results, gets kids to school on time and results in less absenteeism.

In 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an election campaign promise to invest $1 billion over five years for a national school food program. Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and Karina Gould, Minister of Families, Children & Social Development are working on a national school food policy and have done public consultation. It’s not known when their report will be released but Palimaka and Field are hopeful the 2023 federal budget will contain a funding commitment.

Support for pre-existing programs would be a good start to tackling the issue, said Field.

“We are urging everyone to write letters to their MPs to get money in the 2023 budget,” she said. “We are talking about every kid having a healthy meal at school every day.  It’s about standards, the same as we have standards for curriculum.”

There is no evidence that Canadian children who come from low-income homes are any more likely to miss breakfast than other children, Field added. “What we want is a universal school food program for all.”

In Sarnia-Lambton, Palimaka said 1.3 million healthy snacks are served to students annually. While the cost of food has gone up, the provincial funding has not.

The funding gap is filled by numerous groups such as egg farmers, Bluewater Power, labour groups, the United Way and the IODE.

The largest single donation to the local school nutrition program was made this month by Noelle’s Gift, which announced a $90,000 funding commitment.

Noelle’s Gift started in 2013 in memory of kindergarten teacher Noelle Paquette who frequently provided her students with food and school supplies. To date, Noelle’s Gift has donated $360,000 to the local school food program.

Still, the need for a federal funding commitment is critical, Palimaka said.

No date has been announced yet for the 2023 federal budget. However, it generally takes place in February or March. 

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