Did you know that 148,000 school-age children live with chronic hunger in Ontario and 5,900 children in northern Ontario use food banks? The Ontario Association of Food Banks 2011 report, Combating Hunger: A Snapshot of Hunger in Ontario, reflects what we heard over and over again while working on ETFO’s Education and Poverty Project – many elementary schools are struggling to provide nutritious food for students facing socio-economic challenges.
Many of ETFO’s elementary schools are located in areas affected by recent layoffs or high unemployment. In the last couple of years, food costs have been climbing due to higher grain and fuel costs. With economic downturns, students attending these schools are sometimes not coming to school properly nourished. Nutritious meals are critical to making sure that Ontario’s classrooms are healthy and happy and that students are able to actively participate in school learning. Studies consistently show that students who are well nourished perform better in school.
Eating healthily improves students’ concentration and strengthens their immune systems. But the cost of buying groceries for school programs means that nutrition in schools is becoming a greater challenge for rural and urban communities.
ADDRESSING THE CHALLENGE
In October 2008, ETFO initiated a partner- ship with the Grocery Foundation, an Ontario-based not-for-profit representing leaders from Canada’s grocery industry. Since 1979, the Grocery Foundation has raised in excess of $75 million, which has gone toward over 250 organizations across the province and met a number of health and wellness needs, including providing nutritious breakfasts and snacks for school-age children. Public donations generated by the Toonies for Tummies fundraising campaign, enables the foundation to purchase sponsored commodities such as milk, bread, and fruit. The Grocery Foundation in turn makes these nutritious foods available to elementary schools through a voucher system.
Schools involved in ETFO’s Education and Poverty Project were invited to participate in a pilot partnership program entitled Nutrition for School Learning, intended to save significantly on food costs by using a subsidized voucher program. The success of this partnership has led to an expansion of the program with over 230 public elementary schools now registered.
HOW DOES NUTRITION FOR SCHOOL LEARNING WORK?
To be eligible to participate, schools facing socio-economic challenges are nominated by their local ETFO office and president. Nominations are collected from locals and approved by ETFO provincial office. Each participating school in the program identifies a “food ambassador” (who is not a classroom teacher) to oversee the program in their school. The food ambassador calculates and sends in the order for food vouchers and along with payment directly to The Grocery Foundation. Vouchers are quickly processed and sent to the school so that the food ambassador can redeem them at the local participating grocery store. Nine grocery chains participate in the program: Metro, Sobeys, Longo’s, Food Basics, Freshco, Price Choppers, Highland Farms, Galati Markets and Foodland. Schools save significantly on the retail value of food items like bread, milk, fruit, cheese, yogurt, and juice.
The expansion of Nutrition for School Learning is wonderful news for ETFO members and their schools, as more students will be provided with the nutrition necessary for learning and human development. As one participating school stated: “Our money went so much further with this project. The food choices allowed us to incorporate all the food groups into our nutrition program. We were able to offer food choices that we traditionally would not have been able to afford to serve in the past”
Children need fuel to keep both their bodies and brains functioning. ETFO’s Nutrition for SchoolLearning will not solve the issue of hunger in Ontario, but it does help elementary schools stretch limited food budgets.