Student nutrition program in Sudbury and Manitoulin preparing for soaring costs
Pandemic restrictions mean pre-packaged food and no volunteers in schools
With students back in class after nearly six months at home, there are many changes — including the ways that school food programs will operate.
What once may have involved a cafeteria-style offering of freshly cooked meals, served by parents and student volunteers, is being re-imagined. Despite new restrictions and limitations, the regional manager of the student nutrition program in Sudbury and Manitoulin says the agency is working hard to ensure students continue to have access to healthful meals and snacks — though Angele Young says there will be challenges, and added costs.
"Some schools are ready to roll and are, you know, starting their programs right away, whereas others are just dealing with their new circumstances and they're going to wait a few weeks or a month," Young said.
"A lot of the schools now have had to change what they normally do."
'Really concerned about budgets'
In a typical year, the student nutrition program provides funds and support to nearly 100 schools in the Sudbury and Manitoulin area, feeding about 18,000 students on a daily basis, Young said.
It's one of a number of agencies throughout Ontario that receive funding from the province, in addition to funding and donations from other partners.
We're well over $2,000,000 that we're going to need on a $750,000 budget.— Angele Young
Because of the pandemic, volunteers won't be able to go into schools to serve food, and "cafeteria-style" serving will not be possible. Instead, Young said, each meal will have to be individually packaged, and brought to students in carts or in bins, to be eaten at their desks.
The school food programs are universal, meaning any student is welcome to take food. Based on past experience, Young says she expects more uptake from students when the food is served in classrooms "because it's there, it's delicious."
"The numbers tend to go up. So we are really concerned about budgets and how much money we have available for the schools," Young said.
Between the anticipated greater uptake, and the added cost of preparing individually packaged meals, Young expects the costs of the food alone "will be triple of what a normal year looks like."
"So when we triple that, we're well over $2,000,000 that we're going to need on a $750,000 budget."
Seeking funding, cutting costs
Adding to the costs schools will have to bear will be equipment, such as carts and bins — costs Young says can "add up very very fast."
"We've made the ministry aware of the impact that everything is going to have on us, and we are definitely seeking out other sources of funding to come in," Young said.
In the months while students were home from school, the agency worked to ensure those in need continued to have access to healthful food — including by giving gift cards to families, and distributing food hampers on Manitoulin island.
Based on the outreach over the last several months, she believes the need in the communities the agency serves has risen.
"There's always families that struggle or that have special needs, and then we add the sudden unemployment that many have faced," Young said. "Some families that may have been OK pre-COVID faced new challenges."
Young says the agency is looking into ways it could cut food costs, as well as looking at other potential sources of funding, to ensure schools can provide food programs for the entire school year.
While the primary focus is re-establishing the in-school programs, she says the agency will do what it can to continue to directly support families with children learning from home who are in need.