As cost of living soars, school food programs struggle to fill growing need

Click to play video: 'Calls for more provincial support for school nutrition programs in Ontario'
Calls for more provincial support for school nutrition programs in Ontario
WATCH ABOVE: Calls for more provincial support for school nutrition programs in Ontario – May 24, 2023

Canadian school food program operators are seeing the highest demand ever as children prepare to go back to school. They say it points to the urgent need for a national school food policy.

The Breakfast Club of Canada and The Coalition for Healthy School Food say the growing demand for school food programs is largely tied to the rising cost of living.

Judith Barry, co-founder and director for government relations at Breakfast Club of Canada says more children than ever are attending its programs — especially in the last few years since the pandemic began.

“It’s already difficult to provide access to food for one child,” Barry told Global News. “Imagine trying to reach hundreds of thousands of children.”

Breakfast Club of Canada has been helping a network of school communities implement breakfast programs for 30 years. They currently support over 3,000 programs across the country and reach about half a million students each day during the school year, Barry says.

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Data from Statistics Canada found that in 2022, 1.8 million households reported experiencing some level of food insecurity, compared to 1.1 million in 2021. Higher rates of food insecurity were found in households with children, it said.

The impact of high food prices is being seen in food banks as well. The Ottawa Food Bank reported Monday that it is being forced to cut shifts for volunteers due to a shortage of donated food.

Food prices are continuing to outpace overall inflation after a massive spike last year. The price of groceries grew 8.5 per cent in July compared with last year, down from a 9.1-per cent year-over-year gain in June, according to Statistics Canada.

Click to play video: 'Food banks struggle to keep up with back-to-school demand'
Food banks struggle to keep up with back-to-school demand

“Rising food costs and increasing family demand are making it a real challenge for school food programs to provide nutritious food to children and youth across the country,” Carolyn Webb, knowledge mobilization coordinator with the Coalition for Healthy School Food, told Global News.

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While it’s becoming more difficult for parents to put food on the table because of the rising cost of goods, school food programs across the country are struggling to provide meals for the same reason.

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In Ontario alone, school food program providers are reporting that their food expenses have increased by between 40 and 80 per cent since the start of the pandemic, Webb says. Program demand has increased by 20 to 40 per cent.

“Many program providers are projecting significant budget shortfalls during this school year and beyond,” Webb says. “Some programs are dipping into their foundations or reserves to pay for programs… some nearly had to pause their operations in the spring.”

Webb explained that some programs in the country had to reduce serving fruits and vegetables and instead increase grains.

Some programs have had to reduce their food quality or quantity, in some cases going from two to three food groups (a full meal) to just one, for example, a granola bar.

Breakfast Club for Canada is feeling this same strain.

“Our expenses are increasing faster than our revenue,” Barry said.

That’s why the organization is heavily relying on donations this year, Barry says, but she urges the federal government to step up with a national school food policy to further increase access to nutritious meals for children on campuses across the country.

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“For us, it is essential to have the federal government on board and for them to be leveraging the existing provincial and territorial contributions to school food programs,” Barry said. “Because feeding children is everyone’s business.”

Sixty-five per cent of the organization’s budget is dependent on donations, with the rest being made up of government programs and grants.

“We can’t see another school year just go by without that addition of funding and we need the federal government to jump in and make a first investment in a national school food program,” Barry said.

According to the World Food Program, one in every two schoolchildren, or 388 million children, received school meals every day from national programs in 2020, in at least 161 countries from all income levels.

Click to play video: 'Quebec families, schools struggling to meet students’ basic needs'
Quebec families, schools struggling to meet students’ basic needs

The 2022 federal budget included a national school food policy but it’s still not clear when that plan will be unveiled, what it will include or how much money will go into it.

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Jenna Sudds, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, said in a statement to Global News that a national school food policy is in line with the government’s vision of “giving children a better start in life.”

“Following extensive consultations in which over 5,000 Canadians and 130 organizations have participated, we look forward to sharing results through a What We Heard Report soon. Our children should have access to nutritious meals so they can learn in the best possible conditions,” she said.

Barry says the release of the What We Heard Report is a step in the right direction, but actions for implementing a national school food policy need to be more urgent.

“Despite the federal government’s goodwill to implement such a program, we must recognize that the rhythm to concretely act on it is not respectful of the children’s growing needs. Not knowing the timeline with which the government is working is worrying while there are more children than ever who are food insecure in Canada impacting the number of students going to school on an empty stomach,” Barry said.

The Coalition for Healthy School Food has been advocating for years for Canada to have a national school food program which is universal, cost-shared and flexible.

Webb says that the coalition hopes that a national school policy will be present in the 2024 federal budget.

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“We know that school food programs help children access nutritious food and that this benefits their physical health, mental health, future eating habits, behaviour, and school performance. Federal investment in school food would help lower future healthcare costs, reduce pressure on the family budget and support farmers and local economies,” Webb said.

“In most countries, it’s the norm to feed kids at school. We need to do whatever we can to make sure our kids are fed and ready to learn.”

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