moved that Bill C-322, An Act to develop a national framework to establish a school food program, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, before I give my speech, I would like to acknowledge the following people. First, I want to thank my constituents in Acadie—Bathurst, who gave me the honour and privilege of representing them over the past eight years. I thank them from the bottom of my heart for putting their trust in me.
Second, I want to recognize my father, André; my mother, Rollande; my mother-in-law, Bernadette; my father-in-law, Hébert; my brother, Jeff; my brothers- and sisters-in-law; my Cormier-Thériault family; and my friends who are watching right now. I recognize them and thank them for their help. They know that it is not always easy to be a federal MP, and so I thank them for all of the help that they give me.
Third, I want to thank my extraordinary employees: Janice, Jocelyne, Sylvie, Gilles and Léopold, as well as Vanessa, a former employee. I thank them for all they do for me.
Fourth, I want to thank my good friend Greg Burn for his help with the research for my speech.
Finally, I want to recognize the four most important people in my life: my daughters, Arianne and Chloé, and my stepson, Léo, who I consider to be my son. I love them and look forward to seeing them again. I want to thank my partner Isabelle, who is an MLA in New Brunswick. I love her dearly, and I sincerely thank her for all of the help she gives me every day. I miss her and look forward to seeing her again.
I am honoured to rise in the House today to speak to my bill, Bill C-322, an act to develop a national framework to establish a school food program. The purpose of this bill is outlined clearly in its title: to develop a national framework for the establishment of a school food program to ensure that all children in Canada have access to healthy food.
I truly believe this is one of the most important pieces of social legislation the House will debate this session.
There are far too many children in Canada going to bed hungry or starting off the school day without a nutritious breakfast. Can my colleagues imagine trying to pay attention to the lesson or trying to do schoolwork while they have pangs of hunger that are gnawing at them and distracting them from concentrating on anything else?
Our own studies, including the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children Survey have shown that up to one in five young people report going to school or bed hungry, often because there is not enough food in the home. In addition, the 2021 First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study found that approximately 50% of first nation households have difficulty putting food on the table. Think of that number: 50%.
These numbers are heartbreaking, but we have the opportunity to do something about it. My hope is that this sad reality will serve as a catalyst for action.
Canada is one of the few member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that does not have a national school food program in place. We have the power to change that, the power to ensure that fewer children in this country go hungry and that children have access to healthy food and a greater opportunity for success.
In 2018, Canada introduced “Opportunity for All - Canada's First Poverty Reduction Strategy”. As outlined in the report, food insecurity is an indicator of poverty. Food insecurity is defined as “the number of Canadian households that do not have enough money to purchase or access a sufficient amount and variety of food to live a healthy lifestyle”.
While this problem persists across the country, it is especially high in the north and among indigenous populations, black populations, lone-parent households, rural and remote communities, households that must rely on social assistance or employment insurance as their primary source of income, and renters. The number of children without access to nutritious food in some communities is very disturbing.
In my home province of New Brunswick, food insecurity for many families, is very real, including within my riding of Acadie—Bathurst. In New Brunswick, there is great regional disparity in the number of school breakfast programs, which creates an unacceptable social inequity. The provincial government funds certain schools but not others. Why should some schools have a breakfast, lunch and snack program and not others?
We know that schoolchildren without access to nutritious food are significantly disadvantaged. School meal programs can help to improve school attendance, foster better academic performance, improve health outcomes, and support students to achieve their life goals.
I want to commend all the dedicated volunteers, private sector donors and community organizations that are stepping up and trying to make a difference. Many are sponsoring or supporting school breakfast programs in communities in New Brunswick and throughout the country, but the demand far exceeds the supply, and they cannot do it alone.
Here are two good examples. To start, I would like to acknowledge the Fondation des petits déjeuners de la Péninsule acadienne and its president, Wanita McGraw. Over the past five years, the foundation has raised over $1.2 million and has helped provide breakfast five days a week to 5,000 students at more than 20 schools on the Acadian Peninsula. I would also like to recognize Alexis Légère, a local market gardener who runs a community greenhouse at Marguerite-Bourgeoys school in Caraquet. The school gave him a plot of land where he grows and harvests vegetables with children from the school. These vegetables are then handed over to the cafeteria to use in meals. My thanks and congratulations go out to these extraordinary individuals and groups.
A comprehensive national framework geared at a school food program would make a real difference. This framework can be a road map for co-operation, bringing many stakeholders together in pursuit of this common objective.
Our government also provides support for school food programs, but despite the efforts being put in at all levels, school meal programs only reach 21% of school-age children. We can do better. We cannot have a program that does not serve every school. All children who require nutritious food should be able to access in their own school.
Bill C-322 also supports the development of a framework. It provides the basis for the discussions that will take place across the country with provinces, territories, municipalities, first nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, parents, volunteers, charitable organizations, teachers, students, school administrators and subject matter experts.
The agriculture and agri-food sectors will also be engaged in this framework development. We can have a program that not only achieves its goal of making sure every child has access to healthy food, but one that will provide a creative blueprint for supporting farmers and agricultural producers in pursuit of that goal.
Canadian-made foods are responsible for one in eight jobs in Canada. The objective of Canada's food policy is to “help guide public, private, and non-profit sectors on food-related decisions and actions that can improve people’s lives, their health, and the health of the environment and the economy.”
A national school food policy will support local food production, create jobs, grow the economy and help us achieve food security and sustainability. When it is rolled out, a national school food program will also provide much-needed relief for struggling families who are often faced with difficult decisions when providing for the needs of their children. These decisions might see a family cut back on its grocery order or look at less nutritious food options, because they cannot afford what they want and need.
I am proud that our government has introduced many programs to support families, such as the Canada-wide early learning and child care program, which reduces the cost of child care to $10 a day; the Canada child benefit; the Canada housing benefit top-up; and the dental care plan. These are just a few of the support programs this government has put in place.
There has also been support for Food Banks Canada, community food centres, and local-level organizations serving people experiencing food insecurity, but we can do even more to help children and families, and this is the reason we need to develop a national framework for a school food program.
Some children may be hesitant to participate in a school breakfast program because they are worried that other children may see them as coming from a poorer background. If school nutrition programs are widely available, there is less chance that a child who needs a nutritious breakfast, lunch or snack will feel stigmatized. This is just one of the issues that can be addressed in developing the framework.
There will be many things to discuss following the passage of this bill, and considerable input will be required in the effort to design the best framework possible, but it is not an insurmountable challenge. There has already been a lot of work done to date. The consultation undertaken by Employment and Social Development Canada on building a pan-Canadian food policy has provided valuable insight and advice.
It is important to have a national framework if we want to meet the goals of a high-quality school food program that is focused on health and nutrition. As we all know, school food programs that currently exist vary from school to school and across the country. This does not mean that all meal programs will look the same, but that choice decisions can be made that will ensure the objectives and goals of the plan will be met.
We must also take into account our diverse cultural needs in the design of a national school food policy. All children should be able to enjoy nutritious and culturally relevant food in their schools. While the goal is to ensure that all programs focus on nutrition and health, it stands to reason that the meals will need to be appealing to students. It would not make much sense to design a meal program with food that students do not like. Again, this is something that can be addressed in the framework.
This bill is very straightforward. It would empower the minister of employment and social development to consult with the Minister of Health, representatives of provincial and territorial governments responsible for health and education, other relevant stakeholders in those fields and representatives of indigenous governing bodies to develop a national framework to establish a school food program to ensure that all children in Canada have access to healthy food.
As outlined in the bill, the framework will:
(a) set out the criteria for determining whether a food is healthy, taking into account Canada's Food Guide;
(b) indicate which meals and snacks, at a minimum, must be offered in schools under the program;
(c) take into account the different circumstances in which children live, including cultural diversity, and the resulting dietary requirements;
(d) take into account the rights and priorities of First Nations, Inuit and Métis;
(e) provide for measures to avoid stigmatizing pupils who use the program;
(f) provide for measures to foster the use of local and sustainable food systems;
(g) take into account existing local initiatives and infrastructure, build on existing school food programs across Canada and use best practices from other jurisdictions; and
(h) promote evidence-based healthy food education in schools across Canada.
The bill establishes a timeline for the consultations and the preparation of a report by the minister setting out a national framework. The report must be completed within one year and tabled before each House of Parliament within the first 15 days on which that House is sitting.
I believe this is a reasonable time frame to carry out the consultations and develop the framework. There is also provision in the bill for reviewing the effectiveness of the framework within five years after the tabling of the report.
We will not achieve the goal of a national school food program overnight, but we will have set a path forward to do so.
I feel passionate about this bill and what it can achieve. I know that all members of both houses recognize what this bill can do for children and families, and how transformative it can be.
Politicians often come under fire and there can be public skepticism about politics and politicians in general, but I have always believed that people run for public office because they want to improve others' living conditions and help their community prosper. It was my motivation to offer as a candidate for Acadie—Bathurst. I am working to improve the lives of my constituents and fellow citizens, but more importantly, in this case, I am working for our successors and the next generation, the children.
We all have the opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives by passing this bill and ensuring that every child in Canada will have access to healthy food in every region of the country.
In closing, I am calling on my colleagues to think about all the children and families who will benefit from a national school food program and support a bill that will serve as a shining example of what makes Canada such a great country in which to live and raise a family.