7 Hamilton schools on wait list to feed low-income students during COVID-19 pandemic

Since March, seven public schools in Hamilton have joined a wait list to access a program by a local non-profit that feeds low-income students healthy meals.

Food4Kids didn't have a wait list before March, but said families have suffered financial hardships since then

Food4Kids said the demand for its program took a rapid climb during the pandemic. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, seven public schools in Hamilton have joined a wait list to access a program that feeds low-income students healthy meals.

Food4Kids has been racing to meet the new demand, while also pivoting to meet the needs of kids studying in-person and online during the COVID-19 pandemic — all with fewer ways to raise funds.

Cathy Hann, executive director of the non-profit group, said on Thursday there was no wait list before March and it's a clear sign the pandemic has affected families.

"We know there are more kids and schools on the wait list because families that may have previously been doing OK may also now have been out of work for six months and so they find themselves in need because of the job loss," Hann said.

"We knew coming into this new school year that list was going to climb because of the need, the job loss, those will mental and physical illness that can't work."

Hamilton lost 46,000 jobs between February and May.

Low-income families have also been hit harder, with research showing rates of COVID-19 are higher in local neighbourhoods with more low-income residents and people of colour. 

Hamilton school boards have also said they would provide schools in low-income neighbourhoods with extra support as they reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When classrooms closed in March, the school-referral program had to pivot from delivering meals to sending $25 grocery gift cards for children to spend at Fortinos and No Frills locations across the city. The cards were sent every two weeks.

Food4Kids will now provide food bags to students in the program attending in-person classes starting on Thursday, Oct. 8. Those registered for online learning, roughly 20 per cent of kids in the program, will continue to receive the gift cards. The gift cards offer the equivalent to the amount of food as the bags.

Hann also said Food4Kids will be ordering food on almost a weekly basis to minimize waste should schools have to close.

"If there's a closure or lockdown again, we'll transition completely to our grocery card model," she said.

"We know we have to be ready to change and pivot because we have kids who are going to change from one learning model to the next or they may have been at-home kids and now they're in school or maybe they'll have to self-isolate."

The pandemic won't make it easy on Food4Kids in other ways too.

Volunteers will have to be physically distanced as they pack the 15 food items into the 1,300 food bags they send out to schools. There are 68 schools in the program.

First, the program will re-register kids who were already in the program. Then it will look at the 38 students who are on the wait list and are in registered schools, in addition to the students in the seven wait-listed schools.

The program will prioritize in-crisis kids with no access to food and then vulnerable kids who are in "absolute need" but still have some access.

But all of this will be approached cautiously because of changes to fundraising during the pandemic.

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"Fundraisers you typically would count on like in-person gala, galleries, golf tournaments, are either cancelled or completely up in the air," Hann explained.

"Because we're an organization that runs 100 per cent on fundraising or community donation, we have to be cautiously optimistic about the funds that will come in in the near future ... the last think we will ever do is take on a child and not provide them with support."

Hann said the community helped keep the program alive during the summer.

It will take several weeks to determine how many more people the program can help — if the list doesn't keep growing.

"It's not just a number, it's not just a school, at the end of the day, it's a child that is going without food, a family that needs your support ... and kids going days without food."

"I don't think we've heard the last of more schools reaching out," she said.

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