Madam Speaker, they say that public education is the great social leveller, yet we know that kids cannot access the promise of education if they are hungry. Today, millions of kids across our country are going to school without food in their bellies. This is something we can change. The bill before us, Bill C-322, can be a part of a change toward the creation of a nationwide school food program that will provide healthy meals to kids going to school right across Canada.
There are many reasons why we should pursue a national school food program. I was looking at a study from The Rockefeller Foundation showing that in the United States, the $18.7-billion investment in school meal programs provides a return on investment of $40 billion. Perhaps for some people those kinds of numbers are motivating, but I think there is a much more profound reason we need to do this: Access to healthy food for kids is a human right. Kids deserve to access the promise of education with food in their bellies. Far too many, millions of kids across our country, are not able to do so.
That is why we in the NDP have long called for a national school food program. I want to particularly highlight the work of the member for Vancouver Kingsway, who tabled Bill C-212 in 2021 on a national school food program, and also our excellent critic, the member for Winnipeg Centre, who has been working tirelessly on this issue in her role as the critic for children, families and social development.
Canada is not doing well when it comes to the provision of school food. Right now, Canada is the only G7 country that lacks a national school food program. Among the OECD countries, we are one of only a few countries that lack such a program. A 2017 study by UNICEF ranked us 37th out of 41 countries. These are 41 of the richest countries in the world, and we are ranked 37th when it comes to the provision of school meals. This is something we need to do much better on.
Right now, the situation in Canada is a patchwork of programs that are held together by NGOs, volunteers, schools and private donors. They are working so hard to ensure that kids can have healthy meals at school, yet we know it is not meeting the need that exists in our country, despite their tireless efforts. That is why the federal government has a responsibility to come forward with a fully national school food program that meets the needs of kids.
I mentioned the situation in Canada. Every province and territory has some semblance of funding for school meal programs. Unfortunately, that funding is falling far short, between three cents and 94¢ per person, per meal. I think anyone in this House who has bought food recently can say this is not nearly enough to ensure that kids are getting nutritious food at school.
Right now, this is a particularly pertinent issue because we have seen the cost of food skyrocket. With the profits of the grocery giants going through the roof, more and more Canadians are struggling to put food on the table. School food programs, given the existing patchwork, are even having a hard time affording the food they need to provide the level of school meals they are currently providing, not to mention meeting the needs that exist across the country.
In my home province of British Columbia, we are very fortunate that the NDP provincial government just recently announced a historic program, Feeding Futures. This is a $214-million school food program over three years. It is the largest investment in a school meal program in Canadian history. It is making a difference right across our province, with school districts now able to increase existing programs and create new programs where none existed.
We need the federal government to come to the table as a partner. This bill in front of us, Bill C-322, can be a contribution in that direction.
I will mention that it has taken a long time to get to this point. Of course, the Liberal Party, in 2019, committed to investing in a school food program. It did not put a dollar value to it.
In 2021, we saw in the Liberal platform that the government would commit $1 billion over five years. That was two years ago. Just imagine all the kids across our country who could have been fed over the past two years if those dollars had flowed and that commitment had been made real with a budget commitment. We are hopeful that budget 2024 will include these necessary dollars so that the patchwork of programs across the country can get the funding needed to deliver more meals.
This vision for a national school food program needs to be universal. It should not be just for kids who are not getting adequate food at home. It should be for all kids so that we are not stigmatizing those who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds. We know that it needs to be cost-shared with the provinces, and it should be free or low-cost for the kids participating in the programs. It also needs to support indigenous food sovereignty and local food production. Those are the characteristics I hope would be reflected in a national school food program created under the terms of the bill before us. This could make our country stronger. When we do it, we will be better for it in so many different ways.
I had my eyes opened to the potential of school food programs two years ago when I visited Suwilaawks Community School in Terrace, in northwest B.C. I visited Suwilaawks with a number of people, including Sam from the Coalition for Healthy School Food, Margo from Farm to School and the principal of Suwilaawks. They showed me the school food program there, and it was tremendously impressive.
I got to go into the kitchen and watch little kids lined up to get homemade soup and fry bread, which had been made by a volunteer named Janis Sharyk Fowler, who has been volunteering at the school for 12 years, and one of the indigenous support workers at the school, Colleen Morgan. She is fondly known as Grammie Colleen to the kids. She got up at seven o'clock that morning to make over 200 pieces of fry bread. Seeing the joy on the children's faces when they came into the school to get this food really brought home the potential of these programs to give kids the nutritious food they deserve so they can learn in our schools.
I would be remiss if I did not also highlight the work of another tireless volunteer in the Terrace area, and that is Gurjeet Parhar. Gurjeet has been working on local food programs and food security for so long through the Kalum Community School Society. The Kalum Community School Society has been delivering a good food box and a food-share program in communities from Dease Lake and Telegraph Creek in northern B.C., all the way down to Bella Coola and over to Haida Gwaii. She has been a tireless proponent of school food programs. I want to thank her for her incredible work across the northwest.
This is an idea whose time has come. It is time for us to move quickly now. There have been far too many delays in getting a national school food program up and running. We need this billion-dollar commitment over five years to hit the ground and to match the funds that are being brought forward by provinces such as my home province of British Columbia. We can improve Canada's standing among peer nations. We can get nutritious, healthy school food to kids right across our country and make our country stronger as a result. We can uphold the human rights of these kids who are going to school hungry.
In a country as rich as ours, we should do no less. We should make every effort to ensure that our children and children in communities all across this nation have the school food they deserve and need to learn.