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by Diana Bronson, Executive Director, Food Secure Canada  

Published in iPolitics on February 3, 2013 

No one in charge of a family budget would neglect to include food; yet that is precisely what the federal government has done for years!

Canada does not have a federal food policy, nor does any minister in charge of food.  As a result, there is no champion around the cabinet table who speaks out about hunger (up to 3.9 million Canadians experience some form of food insecurity); about the need for healthy and safe food (diet-related chronic diseases cost the economy an estimated $93 billion per year); or about the long-term sustainability of  food production  in this country (we have lost two-thirds of our family farms since 1950).

It is astonishing that a piece of legislation as far-reaching as the last budget had so little to say about something so vital to all Canadians.  Of course last year’s omnibus C-45 will have an impact on food through regulations that affect, for example, fisheries and agriculture, but this is quite different from having a forward-looking federal strategy that tackles hunger, health and sustainability.

Canada needs a national food policy – as was acknowledged by all political parties in the last election. Yet other than sitting at a table convened by the biggest actors in the food industry as an “investor,” the federal government appears to have done little to move towards this goal.  Rather than convening stakeholders for a discussion as a government should, it has merely become one voice in a process led by corporations!

The 2013 budget would be an excellent occasion to lay down some of the building blocks of a national food policy that would address some of the worst problems in our food system.  There are many modest budgetary measures that could be taken.  Why not start, at the beginning, with children and young people via a federal student nutrition program?

Numerous studies have proven the value of school nutrition programs.

Put simply, they:

  • Help foster long-term healthy eating habits among children and youth.
  • Reduce obesity and associated chronic illnesses (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, etc.).
  • Improve educational performance and school attendance.
  • Foster greater awareness of food issues and build stronger communities.

The best illustration of this success is the growth of student nutrition programs over the past decade. If we look just at Ontario, with steady stewardship by the NDP, Conservative and Liberal governments, these programs have grown from budgets of under $1,000,000 when started in the early 1990s to $17.1 million annually today.

These successful programs have partnership at their very core. They are diverse because they have been built from the bottom up, by hundreds of grassroots initiatives across the country responding to local needs. In some jurisdictions, the bulk of the funding is already in place. Cities and provinces are active, parents and voluntary organizations are at the table, and the private sector is supportive.

But in order for these programs to reach even greater numbers of kids, with better, more nutritious and more local foods, we need the federal government to make healthy kids a priority. This wise investment in healthy childhood eating habits not only delivers nutritious snacks to hungry and malnourished kids today, it will save money over the long term, preventing obesity-related chronic diseases such as diabetes. The savings to our over-burdened health care system will register for years to come.

So, what would it cost to begin a national program that would give every primary and secondary school student a healthy mid-morning snack? If the federal government contributed 20 per cent of the total cost (the rest is already in place by other partners) the total annual cost would be under $550 million – including much-needed subsidies to Northern and remote communities, where hunger currently affects up to 70 per cent of residents.  

The program could be phased in over three to five years, building on existing community initiatives and working towards universal coverage. This is a great opportunity for the Government of Canada to be smart about the way it spends its money: investing in a national student nutrition program is an investment in health, education, young people, and communities with incalculable returns.

This budget, let’s put our money where are mouths are.