Toronto group providing summer meals in absence of school nutrition programs

A summer nutrition program, Summerlunch+, is trying to fill the gap left by the absence of school nutrition programs on summer break by partnering with free summer camps across Toronto to provide healthy meals and snacks for students.

Summerlunch+ expects to provide 18,000 meals to students from low-income families over the summer

Campers enjoying a tuna salad by the Summerlunch+ team (Susan Wright/Instagram)

When a Thorncliffe Park mother hit a rough patch and her income dropped, her first thought was her children. 

"If it was just me... I don't care," said the woman, who CBC Toronto has agreed not to identify. "But when you have children, it's a whole other ballgame."

She immediately started searching for resources to help supplement the small amount of food she could put on the table, but found just one food bank in the area, which wasn't open long enough for her to access.

"Going through that is very frustrating and to be honest, it's almost heartbreaking," she said. "To struggle to bring food home is something nobody wants to experience."

During the school year, the woman's children were fortunate to be able to access the city's school nutrition programs. 

But on summer break, the school program is not an option.  

Now, a summer nutrition program, Summerlunch+, is trying to fill that gap, partnering with free summer camps across Toronto to provide healthy meals and snacks for students.

They expect to provide about 18,000 meals through their programs at Alexander Park, Thorncliffe Community Centre and Moss Park over the summer. 

Urban gardens provide fruit and vegetables

Summerlunch+ does more than just provide meals, said Susan Wright, the program's founder. "You can't just feed kids and expect there to be longer term change," she said. 

"Our goal is to impact longer term health," explained Wright. "We provide food literacy training. We talk to [the kids] about where food comes from, why it's important to their bodies. We talk to them about vitamins, minerals and things like that."

The organization, which is supported by Tides Canada, also has a garden at Thorncliffe park.

"We take kids from the summer camps into the gardens. They get to plant things, harvest things, eat off the vine, learn about where food comes from. They get to see that food in the lunch that we serve them," said Wright.

They are also partnered with other urban gardens that provide fresh food to their Moss Park and Alexander Park locations.  

Wright said this type of education makes their program more impactful. "Over time, we want to make sure that when kids are old enough to make their own decisions, they make healthy, sustainable decisions."

Susan Wright (left), founder of Summerlunch+ at the group's urban garden. (Susan Wright/Instagram)

The program, now in its second year, is starting relatively small compared to the need, said Wright. She said they hope to widen their reach to families in the future. 

"We know we need to work with kids and their family to show them how to affordably cook so this year we created a newsletter that we send home to parents. We just sent our first newsletter home that shows all the different food that kids have eaten and one of their favourite recipes."

Toronto has highest child poverty rate 

This way, she said, families can learn about sustainable, healthy eating.

City of Toronto statistics taken from the TDSB and Daily Bread Food Bank show that the number of children visiting food banks in the city is growing. 

Meanwhile, Statistics Canada data from 2015 shows that Toronto has the highest child poverty rate of any large city in Canada. 

Summerlunch+ hopes to keep growing exponentially to address this demand, said Wright. 

As for the Thorncliffe Park mother who spoke with CBC Toronto, she says the program is a huge relief for families in the area struggling as she once was.

"It's a huge support," she said. "And it's just one less thing that is on a family's plate to deal with. "