'A patchwork quilt' of help: Nutrition on Weekends program steps in to feed hungry kids in Kenora
School boards, rotary club deliver a week's worth of food to at least 325 children every Wednesday
More and more families in Kenora are asking for help from a food program operated by the public and Catholic school boards in the northwestern Ontario city and the local rotary club.
The Nutrition on Weekends (NOW) program began as a pilot project last spring, said Marnie Buffet, the early years coordinator for the Kenora Catholic District School Board.
As teacher she recognizes the importance of healthy meals to childrens' academic and social performance.
"If they're hungry and their basic needs aren't met, they can't learn," she said. "There are a lot of families who are doing their absolute best and they need some support."
When the program was launched, about 17 elementary school students received two breakfasts, two lunches and a couple of snacks to get them through the weekend.
Pandemic forces some families to use NOW for first time
However, by the time schools closed in March 2020 to slow the spread of COVID-19, there were 275 children taking home the packages every Friday, and the program was operating in all eight of the city's elementary schools.
Buffet said the over the last few weeks, as the economic shutdown from the pandemic continues, the numbers have climbed to 325 and demand in the city of about 15,000 is increasing.
"When the school closures happened, people started reaching out, families from the high schools saying 'my children normally access the breakfast and lunch program at your school, what do we do?' and so they were folded into the program," she said.
"There are also families who didn't need to access food before who are now reaching out, and due to shutdowns or reduced hours they're finding themselves in a situation where they need that added support."
'Can we get enough food?' to fill packages
The packages have also grown in size, with each student now receiving enough food to last between five to seven days.
The food is sourced by Stacey Szajewski, co-chair of the Health and Hunger Committee in Kenora. She works with grocery stores and other partners to find healthy food like cereal, canned fruit, tuna, and beans.
"That was definitely one of the biggest concerns at the beginning. Can we get the amount of food we need to fill the bags, because the bags are also bigger now," said Buffet of the packages which are now distributed on Wednesdays.
The other concern was how to make sure the food got to the people who needed it.
After schools were forced to close, families were asked to come to one of three locations in Kenora to pick up the bundles
Hunger 'major concern' in Kenora
However, turnout was surprisingly low and organizers learned there "it was a real barrier to have to come pick up the package whether it was transportation or the time of the day", said Buffet.
They also discovered that families living in nearby First Nations also faced additional obstacles such as "with the lockdown [in those communities], if they can only leave once a week, how do we connect with them?"
She said education officials in the communities have worked with the NOW group to get packages to families who need them, while in Kenora, volunteers from each school board are delivering the hampers and "connecting with families much more effectively."
The pandemic is highlighting hunger as a "major concern" in Kenora, said Buffet, noting that statistics show schools in the community help mitigate the issue by providing 700 meals a day to students.
"In a time like this, when schools are closed, all of a sudden it's a crisis, because who's filling that spot?," she said. "It's being done in sort of a patchwork quilt kind of way now."
You can hear the full interview with Marnie Buffet on CBC's Superior Morning program here.