02 Oct ‘Perfect storm of obstacles’ impacting Niagara school food programs
Niagara Nutrition Partners saw number of students participating in food programs jump to 24,000 from 17,000 in past two school years
The school year is beginning much like it left off for Niagara’s school food programs.
Food, equipment and delivery expenses are continuing to increase at alarming rates and programs are becoming more expensive to maintain. On top of that, the need is only growing as new student enrolment “rises at rapid rates that we have not seen before.”
“It’s unprecedented times at the moment. We’re currently experiencing a perfect storm of obstacles that impact how we run our programs,” said Jessica Stephenson, Niagara Nutrition Partners program manager. “We’re just trying to meet that increase in student population to make sure that all students have access to a healthy meal at all times.”
With the aim of eliminating the stigma associated with breakfast programs, Niagara Nutrition Partners serves breakfast, lunch and/or snacks to students at 201 schools encompassing Niagara’s four school boards.
About 1,000 volunteers work on the front lines to provide more than 24,000 elementary and secondary school students with a meal each day. Although that number is from last year (September numbers have yet to come in), Stephenson anticipates it will continue rising as new students arrive.
“Breakfast programs focus on children specifically but the impact ripples over to families, schools and entire communities so student nutrition is actually an essential pillar in achieving food security,” she said. “It’s open to all students at all times, no question asked. If you say you’re hungry, you receive a healthy meal.”
Niagara Nutrition Partners assigns each of its six staff members to an area within the region. The organization has measures in place, such as meeting nutrition guidelines and training schools on safe food handling, but the programs are tailored to each school “to meet them where they’re at” depending on demographics, need and capacity of volunteers.
From 2021 to 2023, the number of students it fed increased to 24,000 from 17,000.
Stephenson said it had anticipated some growth but, “I don’t think we understood the gravity and how large it actually was and the impact it would actually have.”
Schools that didn’t have student nutrition partners came on board. Increasing enrolment also played a role, with new housing developments and areas such as Niagara Falls experiencing an influx of asylum seeking and refugee families.
“More students than ever arriving to schools with unsuitable or absent lunches. We’ve just really worked with schools to assess those needs and to make sure that we’re filling in gaps where we can,” said Stephenson.
“We’re doing everything we can to get the word out that we rely on community support to make these programs happen.”
Community Crew, a non-profit organization, provides lunch to about 1,500 students in 30 schools, representing areas within the region with the highest percentage of poverty. Fundraising manager Katy Herron said its school year got up and running last week, serving about 4,500 lunches a week.
So far numbers seem on par from a year ago, but one difference is a higher request of Halal lunches, which is a reflection of the changing demographics.
“We’re happy to be able to provide children who can participate in Halal lunches, meals they can enjoy,” she said.
Based in St. Catharines, Community Crew does not receive government funding, relying on individual and business supports. It has a waiting list with schools requesting assistance, but it is financially limited in how it can help, and Herron said “we’re not planning any expansion.”
Niagara Nutrition Partners receives funding from the Ministry of Children Community and Social Services but the provincial money — it has remained stagnant since 2014 despite inflation and rising population — only covers a portion of the cost, leaving gaps it works to fill through groups such as United Way, helping put “buffers in place” so schools can provide meals year-long.
“It’s just becoming more and more difficult to maintain the same quality that students deserve,” said Stephenson, adding that near the end of last school year, programs were having to cut corners, handing out only an apple and/or granola bar, to make sure students had something to eat.
It has requested additional funding — Niagara Nutrition Partners said it has 10 schools with outstanding requests — but continues to look forward, trying to get ahead financially while stressing the importance of food security to the province as well as the federal government.
Canada is the only G7 nation without a school food program. Stephenson said the School Food Coalition — it said food insecurity affects about 1.8 million children in the country as families struggle with affordability — is advocating for a national program that would ensure every student has access to nutritious meals.
Stephenson said she is hopeful a petition asking for the universal program will be read to the House this year. The Liberal government has explained the program would need financial commitments from every province and territory.
“We have a lot of local MPs and MPPs on board as well that have been outspoken advocates on our behalf,” she said. “It’s a non-partisan issue, obviously feeding kids across party lines, and it’s just really something that we should all be dedicated to doing.”