London, Ont. area school meal programs strained under rising food costs

Click to play video: 'School meal programs grapple with rising food costs'
School meal programs grapple with rising food costs
Food costs continue to soar amid rising inflation and it’s having an impact on programs that offer meals for students. As Erica Vella reports, some experts say it’s time for the federal government to step up – Jan 18, 2023

School meal programs in the London, Ont. area are feeling the pinch of rising food costs and say the time for government help is now.

The Ontario Student Nutrition Program administers funding and provides meal programs to more than 480 schools in southwestern Ontario.

In London and Middlesex County, the program helps feed about 25,000 students and 89 schools weekly for the 2022-2023 school year.

Supervisor of community relations Danielle Findlay says those numbers represent an increase of 900 students and four schools from the previous academic year. As of Friday, another three schools in the region are on a waitlist for service.

“With those post-COVID price increases, we’re seeing that there is an increased need and unfortunately with the limited funding that we have, it’s very difficult to keep up with that need,” Findlay says.

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The program is kept alive by dedicated volunteers and discount pricing that it has been able to leverage through bulk purchases from distributors across southwestern Ontario, according to Findlay.

Prices fluctuate due to seasonality and other factors, but Findlay says a hot meal through a hot lunch program costs about $6 per student on average and a healthy snack consisting of two food groups costs about $2.50 on average.

Some volunteers are tasked with purchasing products directly from grocery stores and Findlay says they do so with the goal of saving as much money as possible, adding that “you’ve never seen couponing like this in your life.”

“It’s all this kind of piecemeal effort that allows the program to continue running, which are things that we need because we do not have any (federal) funding,” Findlay says.

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While the program is doing what it can to keep running, Findlay says some schools haven’t been able to sustain their own programs.

“It may be where a school that’s struggling is going to reduce their servings from five-days-a-week to three-days-a-week … or the quality of food may not be there or maybe that they’re offering one food group two-days-a-week, rather than two food groups,” Findlay says.

“Those types of cost-saving measures really impact the quality of the program and unfortunately impact student success.”

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The strain on school meal programs is bleeding over into the London Food Bank, which has seen demand skyrocket to unprecedented levels amid rising inflation.

“People from those families who are wanting to help their kids get fed at school are coming to us directly. We also have school programs that are asking the food bank for food, so that’s part of the challenge,” co-director Glen Pearson says.

“I don’t think any of us knew what was going to happen after pandemic (restrictions) ended and it’s probably been way worse than anybody had predicted.”

Glen Pearson, co-executive director of the London Food Bank, at the agency’s warehouse on Leathorne Street. Andrew Graham / Global News

When the pandemic forced school closures in recent academic years, the provincial government, which funds meal programs such as the Ontario Student Nutrition Program, stepped in by supplying food banks with skids of hampers to be doled out to families in need.

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“These hampers were really well done. They were all well packaged and they lasted for a whole week,” Pearson says.

The London Food Bank co-director wants to see that type of government support repeated as school meal programs find themselves starved of resources.

“It doesn’t have to be permanent. When it comes to food, they could help with nutrition programs and others for the next year until the economy begins to right itself, if indeed it does.”

Findlay is also hoping to see more funding from the province, along with new support from the federal government, emerge this year.

In the meantime, Findlay says the Ontario Student Nutrition Program is in dire need of volunteers, after many who were older adults or immunocompromised were forced to stop entering schools to provide help due to COVID-19 concerns.

“We’re in this added pinch of needing to ensure that we can get more people into the building again, to ensure that they can assist with preparing and serving the food, and keep those costs down as well,” Findlay says.

There are also volunteer opportunities available outside of school hours. Full details on how to help are available on the website.

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