Local heroes: Food writer teams up with top Calgary restaurant to make thousands of bagged lunches for kids

Julie Van Rosendaal has set up a lunch-making factory in one of the city's top restaurants in order to get food to thousands of Calgary kids no longer getting fed at school amidst the pandemic.

The owners of an award-winning Calgary restaurant have lent out their space to make and pack kids' lunches

Julie Van Rosendaal has rallied a team to help feed thousands of hungry kids during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

In the kitchen of one of Calgary's finest restaurants, some of the city's top culinary talents assemble sandwiches — white bread, ham, cheese, mayo.

Those sandwiches get packed in a brown bag with all of the typical school lunch snacks: a bag of chips, an apple, a granola bar. 

Some will have a bag of pretzels, donated by WestJet — one of a million packages of airplane snacks donated by the Calgary-based airline.

The accoutrements are laid out in the dining area of the international award-winning Rouge restaurant in Inglewood. There, Julie Van Rosendaal has set up a lunch-making factory to feed thousands of Calgary kids who are no longer getting fed at school amidst the pandemic.

"There are so many hungry kids in this city," says Van Rosendaal.

While closed due to COVID-19, international award-winning restaurant Rouge in Inglewood has turned into a brown bag lunch factory. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Van Rosendaal is a well-known Calgary food columnist, cookbook author, cook and general foodie.

But she doesn't just make a living off food, she lives food. When there is a person or community in crisis, Van Rosendaal helps through her culinary connections.

So when she realized there were going to be hungry kids in the city, she rallied a team to find and feed them. 

"For thousands of Calgary kids, their main source of food is at school — the breakfast and lunch programs," she said.

Until the coronavirus-related closures, if Calgary kids weren't being fed at home, at least they'd go to school where they could get up to two meals a day. 

With schools closed, that safety net for hungry kids is gone.

Rouge chef Paul Rogalski immediately said yes when Julie Van Rosendaal asked to use his kitchen to make lunches for children not being fed through brown bag programs. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Adding to that gap is the fact that agencies which fill the needs, and mouths, of hungry kids are facing their own challenges.

They've lost volunteers, their kitchens are shuttered and distribution points, like schools and clubs, are closed. 

So on the day that she raided the fridges and cupboards of Brown Bagging It so their food wouldn't go to waste, Van Rosendaal texted her friend — Rouge chef and co-owner Paul Rogalski — asking if she could use his fridge and kitchen.

Even though Rouge is facing its own coronavirus-related financial challenges, Rogalski immediately said yes. 

"We'll make lunches, we've got a kitchen here," Rogalski said. "We feed people, that's what we do ... that makes us happy. We have purpose, that's fulfilling."

Rouge co-owner Olivier Reynaud has loaned the restaurant's kitchen out — and signed his daughter up as a sandwich-maker — so that hungry children in Calgary can get a free lunch. (Meghan Grant/CBC )

Donations began pouring in from closed-down restaurants, coffee shops, corporate kitchens and corporations like WestJet.

Then came the issue of distribution — how to find most high-needs areas where children could grab a bagged lunch.

There are several pick-up points now — Gravity Cafe in Inglewood and, with help from a group of Bowness teachers, the Bownesian Grocer parking lot.

Youth Centres of Calgary also started curbside lunch pick-ups in several neighbourhoods including Ogden, Dover, Forest Lawn and Rosscarrock.

"The need is everywhere now," said Van Rosendaal. 

On Fridays, bigger items and extra food are often available to help get the kids through the weekends.

Saskia Reynaud helps assemble sandwiches at her father's restaurant, Rouge. Co-owner Paul Rogalski's daughter is also on the assembly line. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

Often teachers are the best resource for identifying the children in need, but the Calgary Board of Education put the kibosh on staff helping with food distribution over liability issues.

Still, teachers are helping get the word out, said Van Rosendaal. 

"I really love being there when the teachers are there, because they see the kids and they're like, 'Oh hi, James, how's your dog?' or, 'How's your violin lessons?' and they always bring books for the kids."

Aside from donations, Van Rosendaal, Rogalski and Rouge co-owner Olivier Reynaud started a mini-market on the restaurant's patio every Friday, selling donated food which then goes back into buying lunch supplies. 

And both owners have lent their daughters to the sandwich-making efforts.

It's been hugely successful, selling out pretty much every week.

When asked how many hours a day Van Rosendaal is spending on the self-directed project of feeding hungry children, she said, "all of them."


Meghan Grant

CBC Calgary crime reporter

Meghan Grant is a justice affairs reporter. She has been covering courts, crime and stories of police accountability in southern Alberta for more than a decade. Send Meghan a story tip at or follow her on Twitter.