Every morning Kashdyn Kewais gets a free breakfast when he starts class at St. David’s Catholic Elementary School in Sudbury, Ont.
It usually includes a hard boiled egg, some toast and fresh fruit or vegetables.
“I feel like the breakfast helps a lot if you’re hungry,” said Kewais, who is in Grade 6.
“It gets on your mind and then you can’t work in the morning. So with the filled belly, you can do your work.”
Every student at St. David’s is offered the same breakfast thanks to the Student Nutrition Program in Sudbury-Manitoulin.
Dawn Wemigwans, St. David’s principal, said the school’s educational assistants start their work day preparing 300 meals with the fresh ingredients they get from the program.
They’ve been preparing breakfast for every student for the last 10 years.
Wemignwans said it’s a vital part of the school day.
“When the students come to school, just like any other human being in the world, you have to have a full belly or your brain doesn’t work properly,” she said.
“So for us it’s very, very important to have a full belly. It’s also important to feel full and to feel confidence and to feel good about yourself.”
A program stretched thin
With the increasing cost of food over the last few years, and growing demand from students who don’t always get enough to eat at home, the region’s Student Nutrition Program has been stretched thin.
“Schools, more and more, are calling, noticing that their budgets are really getting stretched,” said Angele Young, the program’s regional manager.
Last month Young attended a pre-budget consultation to inform priorities for the 2024 Ontario budget. She requested a $500,000 annual increase from the province for the program to keep up with rising costs and growing demand.
If the Ontario government grants the request, it would be the program’s first funding increase in more than 10 years.
“We are hoping to avoid a problem that may occur by the end of this school year where schools have to start making decisions around reducing days or reducing what’s available just to get those dollars to make it to the end of June,” Young said.
Better Beginnings Better Futures Sudbury, the organization that manages the program, works with 91 schools across every school board in the district.
Every day, said Young, they feed 19,000 students at those schools. Demand has doubled since 2019.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Young said they served about 1.5 million meals a year. This year, that number is on track to reach 3 million.Those meals are available to all students at participating schools.
There are a number of reasons for the increase, she said, including more students, and schools making the food more readily available to everyone.
But Young said some families have also struggled financially since the pandemic, which means their children are relying more on the program to meet their nutritional needs.
Better Beginnings Better Futures spends about $1 million a year on food. Most of that money comes from the province, but Young said it’s no longer enough to meet demand, even though they are able to buy food at discounted bulk prices.
To serve those 19,000 meals a day, she said they are spending an average of 40 cents for each breakfast. But with rising food prices, Young said a healthy breakfast should cost closer to $2.50.
To make up the shortfall, Better Beginnings Better Futures has been relying on community donations.
Young said more funding from the province would not only help with purchasing food, but would also allow schools to update equipment in their kitchens, such as some aging fridges.
There are 14 agencies across Ontario that support similar student nutrition programs with provincial funding.
Investment from the province
In an email to CBC News, Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said it’s investing an additional $6.15 million this year in the Student Nutrition Program and the First Nation Student Nutrition Program across the province.
The additional investment brings total provincial funding for the program to more than $38 million, the email said.