Advocates, teacher unions call for free breakfast, lunch for Ontario students

Barrie Food Bank says the number of children using their services was up 58 per cent year-over-year last month

By Maan Alhmidi in Toronto

Files – Barrie 360

Advocacy groups, teachers’ unions and food banks are calling on the Ontario government to provide a free breakfast and lunch program in schools across the province. 

In a letter sent to Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Children Minister Michael Parsa on Wednesday, the collection of organizations said many children in Ontario are facing food insecurity that forces them to rely on food banks for their nutritional needs.

The groups, including the Toronto Youth Cabinet, Food Banks Canada and the province’s four major teachers’ unions, said current student nutrition programs in Ontario are seeing increased demand but are not meeting the needs of students.

The organizations said Ontario should provide a universal free school breakfast and lunch program to all students and guarantee that schools have sufficient infrastructure, resources and funding to deliver the meals.

Stephen Mensah, executive director of the Toronto Youth Cabinet — the city’s official youth advisory body — said the benefits of providing universal school meals to students include increasing their school achievement, reducing absenteeism and promoting good health.

“No child should go to school hungry,” Mensah said at a news conference on Wednesday.

“The child’s right to food is not a luxury that should be experienced by few, but a necessity deserved by all.”   

Henry Chiu, director of development and marketing at the North York Harvest Food Bank in Toronto, said an unprecedented number of people have been relying on food banks in recent months, including many families with children. 

“With our network of 37 agencies, we’re serving more than 20,000 (people) each month,” he said. “This is the highest number we’ve seen in our 36-year history.”

Feed Ontario, a collective of 1,200 direct and affiliate food banks and other organizations that work to address food insecurity, said in a report in November that 587,000 adults and children visited the province’s food banks a total of 4.3 million times between April 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022. 

The coalition of hunger relief organizations said about 30 per cent of food bank clients were under the age of 18.

In Barrie, the food bank supported 1,440 children under 18 in April, an increase of 58 per cent from a year ago.

“School snacks are a major part of our food program with an allotment for each school age child in the household,” said executive director Sharon Palmer in an email statement to Barrie 360. ” We know anecdotally that many students are going to school without adequate breakfasts or lunches. I understand that schools do receive funding for school snacks, however, these programs are run by volunteers, and for some schools the funding is not adequate. Parents or teachers are purchasing the food with the funds provided and managing the programs which vary considerably by school. A key consideration is not singling out kids who don’t have enough food to eat. Best-in-class programs make healthy food available to all children.  This might mean a breakfast/snack table that all kids can access as they come into school to ensure there is no stigma in accessing the food. The concept of a province-wide breakfast and lunch program would be extremely beneficial for many children.”

Barrie Food Bank provided food support to 1440 children under 18 in April up 58% over April of 2022

banner image: The Canadian Press