TDSB serves 136,000 meals to students each day as child poverty rises

Child poverty is a growing concern in Toronto classrooms as an increasing number of students are arriving at school without eating breakfast and with nothing in their lunchbox. In 2016, the Toronto District School Board started 140 new breakfast programs to try to help.

It's 'really hard to learn without food,' kids who go to school without a lunch say

The Toronto District School Board opened 140 new breakfast programs in 2016. (Oliver Walters/CBC News )

Child poverty is a growing problem in the classroom — and it's prompting Canada's largest school board to prepare a staggering 136,000 breakfasts and lunches for students each day. 

The Toronto District School Board opened 140 new breakfast initiatives in 2016, bringing its total number of meal programs to 588.

But there are kids who continue to go hungry.

"We would love to open up another 140 more but that depends on more money," said Catherine Parsonage, executive director of the Toronto Foundation for Student Success, a charitable organization that works alongside the TDSB to help students in need.

Toronto's Dundas Junior Public School feeds 80 students a hot lunch each day. (Oliver Walters/CBC News)

Earlier this year, Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank noted an uptick in food bank usage in 2016, saying a combination of stagnant incomes and rising food and housing costs was behind the surge.

"When we look at the statistics that came out recently, those are the same kids who come to school without anything to eat for breakfast or for lunch," Parsonage said.

'It's good in your tummy'       

At Dundas Junior Public School, 80 children are fed a subsidized hot meal every day. 

The elementary school is equipped with a full kitchen, a setup few schools have, and it is in full swing well before the lunch bell rings. 

"It's really hard to learn without food," said Ava Lett, 10, as she loads up a plate of chickpea curry and coleslaw alongside the other children here.

Every student must try at least a bite of each dish served. (Oliver Walters/CBC News)

Two groups of children will pass through the hot lunch lineup. While not everyone has their lunch subsidized, students are well versed in what it means to go hungry. 

"I think [hot lunch] is really important," said nine-year-old Amni Hantash. "If kids don't have money they can come here and the lunch is really yummy and good in your tummy."

Teachers also note that students are less likely to cause trouble in the classroom and to arrive on time when food is provided. 

"The best teacher, the best pedagogy, can't teach a hungry child," Parsonage said. 

Feed a student for the cost of a latte     

The meal programs are delivered in 426 schools across the TDSB — some schools have more than one — and, in a school year, will serve more than 25 million breakfasts or lunches.

It costs about $1.50 to feed a child a healthy breakfast and about $2.50 for lunch, according to the board. The school food programs are funded by parents who can afford the fees, the municipality, the board and private donations. 

The best teacher, the best pedagogy, can't teach a hungry child.- Catherine Parsonage, Toronto Foundation for Student Success

"One hundred dollars buys lunch for 70 children," Parsonage said. "No student should be going hungry in Toronto." 

While not all breakfast and lunch programs are the same, Dundas Junior Public serves a wide variety of foods and insists all students try at least a bite.

The result is a student body excited to eat beet salad, bok choy and meals that might not please the typical 10-year-old's palate.

"These chickpeas," Olga Hamer said, pointing to her plate, "my mum makes them totally differently and now I found out they're really actually good."

It costs $4 to feed a student, said Catherine Parsonage, the executive director for the Toronto Foundation for Student Success. (Oliver Walters/CBC News)