School meal programs are struggling to serve the growing number of students in need as food prices soar

As food prices continue to rise in Canada, putting pressure on families as they buy groceries, pay rent and try to make ends meet, school feeding programs across the country say they are struggling to provide meals to a growing number of students in need.

The Breakfast Club of Canada, one national program that reaches more than 580,000 children, says in the meal programs it supports in more than 3,500 schools, 30 to 40 percent of students typically participated before the pandemic hit.

With food prices continuing to rise, “some rates are now closer to 60 and 75 percent of the school population,” said Judith Barry, co-founder of Breakfast, in Montreal.

Grocery prices have an impact on school feeding programs, said Barry, who is also the group’s director of government relations, because operators “can’t get the same value and the same amount of food.”

Some are forced to make difficult choices, such as reducing the food items they offer or the number of times the program can be run.

After navigating nearly three turbulent years of adjusting to restrictions and lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, school feeding programs across the country are now grappling with another crisis: rising food costs along with an increase in the number of students requiring daily food. meal.

For program operators, the anticipated national school food program pledged by the federal government can’t come soon enough.

watch | Higher Prices Mean Less Nutritious School Lunch Programs:

Higher food prices mean less nutritious school lunch programs

School lunch programs are feeling the pinch of price hikes, as some find it hard to afford more nutritious food — and more expensive ones.

School food is an essential service.

said Debbie Field, coordinator of the Alliance for Healthy School Food, a national group of nonprofits working to increase students’ access to nutritious school meals.

“School food is an essential service.”

Field, who is also an associate member of the Center for Food Security Studies at Toronto Metropolitan University, noted that when in-person classes were closed at various points earlier in the pandemic, it underscored how important school breakfast, lunch and snack programs were. to many students.

An older woman in an army green puffer jacket is standing outside by a wooden fence.  Behind it is a playground structure and school buildings.
When in-person classes closed at various points earlier in the pandemic, Debbie Field, coordinator of the Alliance for Healthy School Food, says she emphasized how important school breakfast, lunch and snack programs were to many students. (Doug Hosby/CBC)

Although provincial, territorial and some municipal governments have helped fund school feeding programs, and Canada has “a lot of creative people running food programs all over the country,” Field said the system needs more.

“With food prices soaring, essential funding for school food programs must be increased,” she said.

A child peels the wrapping off a stick of cheese while eating a snack.  Clementine and a group of crackers are sitting on the table in front of him, while other students are seen behind him.
The Angel Foundation for Learning helps fund student feeding programs in Toronto schools. The charity provides support for more than 180 student nutrition programmes, which feed 61,000 students each school day. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In Toronto, John Yan, executive director of the Angel Foundation for Learning, has been busy with ongoing fundraising discussions and new initiatives hoping to boost the charity’s support for more than 180 student nutrition programs, which feed 61,000 students each school day.

The foundation pools financial contributions from a variety of sources, including levels of governments, private donors, and fundraisers with corporate partners—like the grocery retailers running the upcoming Toonies for Tummies appeal—and funnels that funding into in-school programs.

Some schools have seen food program participants double, Yan said, and since these operations focus on fresh, healthy offerings and are required to follow specific nutritional guidelines, staff may have no choice but to pay higher food prices.

“In many schools…that snack or meal may be the only nutritious food a student or child gets that day,” he said.

An older white-haired man in a dark jacket and blue and white striped shirt is sitting inside in a white room.
Jun Yan, executive director of the Angel Foundation for Learning, says the group released emergency funds for 12 school food programs last week. Before the pandemic, additional funding applications were usually submitted near the end of the school year. (cbc)

Last week, the foundation released $60,000 in emergency funds for 12 school food programs in the city. Before the pandemic, requests for additional funding usually arrived near the end of the school year, Yan said.

“If we did actually increase the emergency funds in January, I can’t imagine what it would be like when we get to May and June.”

The manager says the need is increasing

Whether welcoming new families or helping deliver pizza for lunch, Edmonton Principal Maureen Matthews sees firsthand the growing need for a free snack and lunch program at Norwood School, a public school near downtown.

“Last year we had just over 180 students entered the school feeding programme, and this year we’re over 220,” she said.

A woman in a red wraparound jacket reads from a bulletin board decorated with colorful papers and bearing the message: Norwoodians!  What is there for food?
Maureen Mathews, principal of Norwood School in Edmonton, reads our weekly snack and lunch menu. The school partners with non-profit organization E4C to provide students with nutritious food on an what-you-need basis. (cbc)

There has also been a rise in “families who — when they come to enroll their students with us — ask whether or not we have a lunch program,” Matthews said. “I see the relief on their faces when I say, You know what? We provide that.”

The Norwood Program, offered through the support of Edmonton-based non-profit charity E4C, operates on a “take what you need” model. In one day, 225 students might have access to food; The next day, 200 students may need a snack, lunch, or both.

“We don’t want to stigmatize people who are food insecure. Food is a fundamental right, and it’s essential to children’s success,” said Kelly Pickford, E4C’s director of community and school programmes.

“if [students] They just need some fruit or vegetables because their family can’t afford it, they have access to it. Or if they need to get to the full meal, they can do that….we’re just building that ability and understanding [the students] To know that when and if they need it, they can access it the way they need to.”

A smiling woman with long hair in a white shirt and navy blue jacket stands in the school kitchen prep area, while two others in masks and gloves prepare sandwiches behind her.
Food is “a fundamental right, and it’s essential to children’s success,” says Kelly Pickford, E4C’s director of community and school programs. (Samuel Martin/CBC)

Find more sources of income

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the School Lunch Association, which is based in St. John’s, expanded this month to provide more than 7,000 nutritious midday meals every school day. It’s ramped up the service to 41 locations—with more seeking to join—under a pay-what-you-can model (with a modest suggested price of $4 per lunch).

However, as more students sign up for lunch, the group is also seeing a rise in the proportion of participants who are unable to pay for it, according to Executive Director John Finn.

Children eat lunch at school.
Students in Newfoundland and Labrador enjoy a special cod fish lunch organized by the School Lunch Association in November. This month, the association expanded to provide more than 7,000 midday meals each school day. The service has also been promoted to 41 sites under a pay-what-you-can model. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

“There are a lot of parents reaching out to you…and they’ll send a personal email saying, ‘Hey, I won’t get paid until next week. I’ll contribute when I can” or “I just lost my job and times are tough.” I usually pay the full amount. “

Before the pandemic, about 90 percent of the revenue the association needed to operate came from sales, with the rest being covered by donations and a provincial grant.

This school year, sales account for 78 to 80 percent, leaving a gap in the funds at the same time the association has seen food and supplies costs increase by 11 percent and 17 percent, respectively. This comes after food costs have already increased by 20 percent, and supply costs have increased by 25 percent during the 2021-22 school year.

“It’s a double-edged sword to a certain extent,” Finn said. Enrollment is up, but it comes “because we’re absorbing additional food costs and supply costs, and then, on the flip side, we’re actually seeing a decrease in the amount of revenue that we would normally generate [from families paying]. “

In addition to working to reduce operational costs and seek new revenue streams, John Finn, executive director of the School Lunch Association, says he hopes to see movement in the National School Food Program in this year’s federal budget. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Recent efforts to reduce the association’s operational costs include minor modifications to menu items, finding new vendors and more negotiating prices with existing vendors.

Employees are exploring additional income streams: new donors, additional government grants, or perhaps a charity lottery license. Finn said he also hopes to see movement in the National School Food Program in this year’s federal budget — as is the case with school feeding counterparts across Canada.

Recent consultations on the national programme

“We have a variety of programs supported by individuals, the private sector and the community, which is great…but we need more as well,” said Barry, co-founder of The Breakfast Club.

“The National School Food Policy will help us really build on what is there — the existing ecosystem — and it will help us reach more students and more communities.”

watch | Judith Barry on what stakeholders want in the National Food Program:

What should go into the National School Food Program?

Judith Barry of the Canadian Breakfast Club shares what she wants to see at the federal national school food program, to reinforce what’s already happening across the country.

More than 5,000 participants — program organizers, parents, volunteers, teachers and others — joined the consultation on the national school food programme, which concluded in December, said Karina Gould, the federal minister for families, children and social development, who was tasked with the investigation. Program alongside Minister of Agriculture Marie-Claude Bibeau.

The report that gathers information is next, Gould told CBC News, with a focus on developing a program that “will work right across the country, responding to the unique needs of every province and territory,” adding that it should also be presented to her colleagues in Ottawa.

Gould said she sees this as a natural follow-up to the daycare program that was adopted across Canada last year, and believes the success of that latest partnership can inspire confidence in similar joint efforts across governments.

“I really see school food as an extra pillar of making sure we prepare all of our children for success in Canada.”

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