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Student nutrition programs in Ontario grapple with nearly ‘limitless need’

TORONTO — Half of a tangerine instead of a whole one, half of a hard-boiled egg or an apple cut six ways — student nutrition programs across Ontario are finding ways to stretch increasingly insufficient dollars.

The province needs to double funding for such initiatives, and even that may not meet the rising demand those programs are seeing, student nutrition programs and advocates told the government ahead of the spring budget.

“Soaring food inflation has played havoc on student nutrition across the province as the funding is too little to purchase a variety of foods in the amount and portion size required to feed a student,” Viviane Dégagné, manager of the Student Nutrition Ontario network, told a pre-budget committee. 

“Add to this the increased participation of students in our programs due to the effects of COVID, soaring inflation for families and the number of new immigrants across our province, and we now have a perfect storm,” she said. 

The Ontario chapter of the Coalition for Healthy School Food is asking the province to double its current investment in student nutrition programs, from a total of $32.3 million to $64.4 million in 2024.

The student nutrition program used to serve as more of a Band-Aid, filling in gaps for some families or helping a child who forgot their lunch, but the need is becoming more sharply pronounced, said Erin Moraghan, the CEO of Nutrition for Learning in Waterloo Region.

“Student nutrition programs are becoming something that families need to lean on, and oftentimes lean on heavily, as a solution to the fact that they simply cannot afford their groceries, full stop,” she said in an interview. 

The Ministry of Community, Children and Social Services sends funding to 14 lead agencies for snack and meal programs across the province. Some transfer money to the school boards or area schools themselves, and volunteers such as administrators or teachers order food and ensure it gets to students. In other regions the lead agency partners with a non-profit that handles those logistics.

The food does not just go to students from low-income families, as a core principle of the program is universality.

“Targeting students who are in a high-need situation is stigmatizing, embarrassing, perpetuates feelings of shame and isolation,” Moraghan said. 

“So we know that when a student who maybe doesn’t have a critical need for the food that’s in the classroom reaches for it, it sort of levels the playing field and gives any students that social permission to go ahead and take what they need without judgment.”

Moraghan’s Waterloo Region program got about 30 per cent of its revenue last year from the province, with the rest coming from other sources such as partnerships, community donors and parent contributions. Nutrition for Learning spent about $1.5 million last year on food, a number that has grown rapidly in the past few years, she said.

“If I had three, four or $5 million in my budget to spend on food, we would absolutely use it,” Moraghan said. “What we’re seeing right now is almost what sometimes appears to be a limitless need.”

The government did put $6.15 million in additional money into the programs this year, including $5 million in the fall.

Danielle Findlay, supervisor of community relations for the Ontario Student Nutrition Program Southwest Region, told the committee that in her area, their portion of the $5 million in funding meant $4.29 for each participating student for the entire school year. One healthy snack costs $1.50 on average, Student Nutrition Ontario estimates.

“Right now, steep increases in food inflation are putting added pressure on already extremely tight budgets,” Findlay told the committee.

“Now more than ever, we are hearing from schools with concerns about how they’ll sustain their programs until the end of the year or keep up with demand week to week.”

Nearly 30 schools are on their regional wait list and there just isn’t enough funding to serve them, she said. The one-time investments of $6.15 million were welcome, but what’s needed is a boost to core funding, something that hasn’t happened in over a decade, Findlay said.

A spokesperson for Community, Children and Social Services Minister Michael Parsa pointed in a statement to the province’s one-time investments and said he continues to wait for more details of a federal pledge to build a Canada-wide student nutrition program.

A national program would be able to help a lot of children, Moraghan said, but the kids going hungry today simply can’t wait.

“We know that now, a lot of the meals that we’re serving at school are sometimes the only meal of the day for a lot of students who are using the program,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2024.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press


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