Dozens of Toronto public schools have asked for funding to run student nutrition programs, hoping that a six-year freeze on new initiatives imposed by the city will be lifted amid growing need.
The city, which works in partnership with school boards, has denied applications for new programs from public schools over the past few years “in order to provide stable and reliable funding to existing programs,” said Toronto Public Health spokeswoman Meghan Kilty.
Funding for school food programs comes from a variety of sources, including both the municipal and provincial governments, as well as private and community donations. Many programs across the country have struggled to feed children this year because of soaring food prices and the growing demand from families who are having difficulty making ends meet with the rising cost of living.
Advocates were disappointed that this week’s federal budget overlooked a 2021 election commitment by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a national food program. Ontario’s budget, released last week, also did not increase the province’s contributions to school food programs. The province has remained consistent in its core funding of $28-million since 2014.
In Toronto, last year the city declined 13 applications from schools for nutrition programs. The city contributes $17-million to such programs in about 600 schools, including seven programs in independent ones.
More than 50 requests for new nutrition programs have been submitted to the city for next September, according to the Angel Foundation for Learning and the Toronto Foundation for Student Success, charitable organizations that work with the Toronto Catholic District School Board and the Toronto District School Board. The applications will be made public at the May meeting of the city’s Board of Health.
John Yan, executive director of the Angel Foundation for Learning, said that typically one or two TCDSB schools will apply for a nutrition program. Five Catholic schools applied for next September, he said.
The foundation collects financial contributions from governments and private donors to support 166 out of 197 Catholic schools with breakfast, snack or lunch programs.
Mr. Yan said that for some children, the food they receive at school is the only nutritious meal they have that day.
“It’s no longer only about nutrition. We’re actually fighting hunger on the front lines.”
Increased food costs mean that municipal and provincial funding covers only 44 cents of every meal under the elementary school breakfast program, said Catherine Parsonage, who heads the Toronto Foundation for Student Success. The charity supports TDSB children through food and other wellness programs.
“It’s awful out there. We need more funding,” she said, adding that 49 requests were made to the TDSB for new school nutrition programs to start next September.
In the absence of public funding, some school communities have taken matters upon themselves. The parent community at Roden Public School and Equinox Holistic Alternative School, both housed in the same building, have run a hot-lunch program since the 2018-19 school year.
Parent Angela Matich said the not-for-profit program has been financially self-sufficient and relies on donations. It feeds about 250 students twice a week for $5 a meal, with one out of every five lunches offered for free to children in need.
Ms. Matich said the moratorium on funding means school communities must outsource to more expensive operators, try to manage their own programs with minimal support from the school board or “sit back and watch kids go hungry in our schools.”
“It’s not an ideal situation for anyone,” she said.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said funding covers only 44 cents of every dollar spent on an elementary school breakfast program, when in fact is is 44 cent of every meal served.