Schools are closed. So what’s replacing student nutrition programs?

Principals are mobilizing to get food to families in need

As principal of Queen Mary Public School, Sonal Gohil knows how important food at school is. “Many of our families rely on student nutrition programs,” she says. “We often have children coming to the office at nutrition breaks looking for a little bit more to eat, and we always have something to give them.” Keeping kids fed at school isn’t just about physical health — it also helps them to learn better. 

So when March Break came to an end this year but schools didn’t reopen, Gohil and the school’s breakfast program coordinator, Heather McLaughlin, realized they’d have to find a new way to get food to families in the neighbourhood.

In the first few weeks after school was closed, McLaughlin started delivering food bags to families who she and Gohil knew were particularly reliant on the school’s breakfast program.

They also put out a call on social media and the school’s other communications channels inviting families to email Gohil if they needed extra food, and some did. “I think it’s lovely that our families feel safe enough to reach out to the school principal to say ‘hey I’d like a little support,’” Gohil says.

Gohil herself made a round of deliveries a few weeks ago, giving families grocery store gift cards. While it’s certainly a new role for her, she says she has embraced it. “It’s no different really than taking care of our families when we’re in school,” she says.

Gohil says Queen Mary wouldn’t be able to continue offering food through the pandemic without the help of local non-profit Food For Kids — that’s who gave them the gift cards, for example.

Food For Kids coordinates and supports student nutrition programs throughout Peterborough city and county. Last year, they helped serve more than 2 million meals to 18,000 students in 49 schools, mostly relying on volunteers, program coordinator Angela Fuchs says.

Last month, the United Way and the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough provided funding to Food For Kids to support the charity’s operations through the pandemic. The Breakfast Club of Canada has also provided funds. Food For Kids has used the extra money to purchase gift cards for principals to distribute, and they’ve also been donating food to Kawartha Food Share for distribution through local food banks.

“We want the families to know that they’re not forgotten and that we are working hard to continue to support them through all of this,” Fuchs says.

Food charity not a long-term solution

According to research released by Peterborough Public Health in December, 30 percent of local families with children under 18 are facing food insecurity.

“That’s double the rate that we see in the rest of Ontario,” says Joëlle Favreau, who manages the Nourish Project. And for families who are led by a single female parent in our region, the rate of food insecurity rises to 50 percent, which is again double the provincial average.

“Prior to COVID-19, our region was facing a challenging situation with regard to food insecurity,” Favreau says, “and we know that it is going to get worse.”

The Nourish Project is also distributing food during the pandemic, and has partnered with Food For Kids to identify families who can benefit from Nourish’s emergency food box program. 

Favreau  says that losing school nutrition programs during the pandemic has shed light on just how crucial they are. “There’s a much more acute sense of the impact of those programs,” she says. “I’ve heard parents say ‘Wow I never realized how much of a difference it made.’” 

Nourish has also received extra funding to run its emergency food box program during the pandemic. The United Way and the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough provided a grant, as did Community Food Centres Canada. As it focuses on distributing the emergency food, most of Nourish’s other programming is on hold, Favreau told me. 

While all these initiatives are important in this time of need, Favreau cautions against mistaking emergency food provision to be a long-term solution. “The issue is that people don’t have enough income,” she says. “I don’t want to give the impression that food programs are going to solve that issue.” 

Emergency food programs “have an impact, but they don’t make people food secure,” Favreau says. Nourish has recently been advocating for a basic income as a better solution to the problem of food insecurity. You can read more about that in this column by another Nourish employee, Elisha Rubacha. 

Regardless of what the best solution is, it’s certainly clear that we need to address food security in our community, and build more resiliency to weather crises like this one.

This article was adapted from a Peterborough Currents email newsletter sent to our subscribers on May 14, 2020. It was edited to fit the new context. To read the original newsletter, click here.

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