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Kirk LaPointe: Can Canada finally fix its shameful school-food gap?

Federal, provincial tussling should not get in the way of a national school food program
Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program. In a conspicuously wealthy country, it is a national disgrace to have hungry children, writes Kirk LaPointe.

When you want to feed hungry children in this country, you realize Canada isn’t built well for it. We will find out how in the next months.

For five years, the Justin Trudeau government has been promising but failing to furnish a national school food program. Its NDP coalition partner has been strangely subdued on what you’d think it would consider a principled, principal need.

Now, with an election looming and in a beleaguered position not far removed from one of a lame duck, the prime minister has decided it’s time for a five-year, $1 billion school food program to feed what he says will be 400,000 children starting this fall.

The chances are slim, if any, of anything approaching the program’s ambition in food making its way to empty stomachs starting a few months from now. The structure of the Canadian federation and the constitutional division of powers work against its success.

In this case, the food program money is federal and how it would be delivered is provincial. The two levels might as well be in different countries speaking different languages.

The history of the federal government traipsing into provincial territory is one of antagonism and protectionism, of differing and duplicative approaches and curiously customized mechanisms. Think housing, health care, child care and literacy – the stuff of well-being, the stuff of inertia and bickering.

And every day each defends its turf, millions of children are hurt.

Visit any elementary school today and you will find children who didn’t eat before they arrived for classes. They won’t learn as well that day. Their minds will be fuzzier, their bodies won’t grow the way they could. They will be prone to more health problems later in life, and to poorer education outcomes, and therefore in all probability to lower incomes. The absence of early-life nutritious food perpetuates multi-generational poverty in ways we can’t fully appreciate.

We can’t clearly understand how many children live with food insecurity in Canada. Estimates range from one in three to one in five. Experts say a sizeable portion of the problem is hidden culturally or emotionally as a shameful sign of weakness.

Regardless, in a conspicuously wealthy country, it is a national disgrace to have hungry children.

Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program. The national Coalition for Healthy School Food ranks Canada 37th out of 41 prosperous countries.

Apart from direct support, we lack any serious co-ordination to mitigate food waste that, believe it or not, exceeds half of all food production. Whether it’s on farms or in supermarkets, we send an extraordinary amount of perfectly healthy food to landfill.

In the likely twilight of this federal government, it is discouraging to hear a tone of national discourse emerging that might prize an amorphous personal freedom and survival of the fittest, and degrade the role of public policy for our larger problems.

Any support children receive in their first dozen years may chafe some taxpayers as a weakness of a welfare state. But even if you just evaluate its economic impact, even if you set aside the moral imperative of providing support when school is and isn’t in session to hungry kids, there is no question the money is a no-brainer bet on our future.

It’s reminiscent of that iconic Fram oil filter commercial from the 1970s that argued for a $4 expenditure to avoid a $200 one: “The choice is yours. You can pay me now or pay me later.”

Provinces have a variety of programs – B.C.’s Feeding Futures program earmarks $70 million annually, arguably the country’s strongest – but many are weak, and the fear is that the federal money will simply be used by provinces so they don’t have to keep spending.

Full disclosure: I’m on the board of the KidSafe Project Society, in its 30th year, which works with the Vancouver School Board in seven sites when school isn’t in session to provide meals and activities. I grew up with food insecurity, was lucky enough to escape it, and can vouch that the need is real and the results tangible of healthier, safer children when food is available. The demand far exceeds the resources, sad to say.

You don’t need to be a fan of this government to acknowledge that any step any government takes to furnish greater food security is a good step. Any obstacle in its way is an abuse of power. Let’s see if this latest attempt can defy the barriers.

Kirk LaPointe is a Glacier Media columnist with an extensive background in journalism.