June 18, 2024

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Bloomsburg Public School in Norfolk County has perfect attendance when the monthly hot lunch is served.

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“Every single kid is in there eating,” said Gail Anderson, who runs the school’s student nutrition program with fellow parent Leryn Pastir.

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“We see the kids that come up three, four, five times for helpings,” Anderson said.

The hot meals are a treat. The rest of the time, a small group of volunteers provides snacks for about 200 students, three times a week.

“There’s definitely a need,” Pastir said, noting some primary students “are hungry all the time.”

“It’s hard to see,” Anderson added. “There’s a lot of kids there that do not have proper lunches. They can’t afford the fresh fruit that we’re providing. Cost of living is ridiculous, right?”

Bloomsburg’s snack program, funded through social service agency Haldimand-Norfolk REACH, cost $11,300 to run last year. This year, the price tag is projected to hit $14,500.

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The school added 60 kids due to a boundary adjustment, explaining some of the increase. But rising food prices are pinching snack programs across the two rural counties, said Sharon Smyth, who facilitates REACH’s Child Nutrition Network.

Participation in breakfast and snack programs in local schools is up “across the board” while food costs have risen eight to 10 per cent, Smith told The Spectator.

Every day, the Child Nutrition Network feeds more than 8,500 students in 46 schools who skip breakfast or pack a nutrient-poor lunch. Students grab fruit and vegetables, a granola bar or package of crackers, and a protein source, such as a yogurt cup or cheese.

“It’s universal, so every child has the opportunity to participate,” said Smith, adding the spike in demand is unlike anything she has seen in her 20 years running the nutrition network.

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There is a mental health component to not having to worry about food, Pastir said, noting the educational benefits of eating a nutritious breakfast rather than “being hopped up on sugar.”

“Teachers have come to us and said it makes a difference,” she said.

“If all (students) can focus on is the fact that they’re hungry, they can’t think. They’re not learning. This helps them fulfil that nutritional need.”

Funding for the Child Nutrition Network comes to REACH from the province and regional and local sources like Breakfast Club of Canada, along with individual donations and fundraisers at the school level.

Last month, Norfolk County approved a $3,000 community grant for the nutrition network. But REACH still faces a $20,000 shortfall this year.

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Per-meal expenses are up 60 per cent since before the pandemic, Smith said, while the number of students going to class hungry has almost doubled in that same time.

Some schools have added more days to their nutrition programs and now serve daily breakfast as well as snacks, putting pressure on volunteers who last year donated 18,000 hours to prep 870,000 meals.

The Bloomsburg parents are happy to accept cash donations and on-the-ground help from people in the community who pass a police check. That can be as little as parents and guardians volunteering to chop veggies or wash containers and coolers while waiting to pick up their kids after school.

“Every little bit helps. Even 15 minutes a week,” Pastir said.

J.P. Antonacci is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter based at the Hamilton Spectator. The intiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

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