When she began teaching at Toronto’s first alternative school in 1974, Doreen Grover would always bring a few apples as a snack.
Surprised at how many of her students would often ask her for one, she starting leaving a bowl of apples on her desk. Noticing how quickly the apples would disappear, Grover proposed that the staff start making soup for the kids. With that idea, the Contact Alternative School’s nutrition program was born.
On Oct. 5, in the spirit of World Teachers’ Day and Feeding Toronto’s Hungry Students Week, leaders from the Toronto Foundation for Student Success and the Toronto and Catholic district school boards visited Contact and similar nutrition programs to get a firsthand look at their operations and impact.
“I’m really, really happy with the turnout,” said Catherine Parsonage, executive director and CEO of the Toronto Foundation for Student Success. “We had people from all levels of government, all of our supporters, our partners, people that really care about the kids.”
The group started their tour at First Nations School in the city’s east end, where they were greeted with a traditional smudging and drumming ceremony. They also had the opportunity to observe the school’s breakfast program in action. Jessie Syvret, the school’s nutritional coordinator, has noticed positive changes since they began serving the meals.
“The attendance has improved, the marks have improved,” she said. “It is the most important part of our program.”
According to a recent survey by the Toronto District School Board, 41 percent of children don’t eat breakfast before coming to school. With the help of donations as well as private and public funding, the foundation helps feed over 110,000 children through more than 600 nutrition programs across the city.
“I think the need is increasing every single year and I think its time we looked at a systemic response. We need to make sure that our children have access to free, healthy food in our schools,” Parsonage said.
At Dundas Junior Public School the guests got to meet members of the kitchen staff including parent and student volunteers. The specialized high school program at Contact has evolved to the point where the kitchen is entirely staffed by students volunteering on a rotational basis.
Due to the efforts of hundreds of volunteers and generous donations of food the cost of each breakfast being served is only $1.42. However, the foundation says it is facing an increase in demand and is feeling the pinch financially.
“As the resources of government get more and more strained, which they are because of recession and tax problems … it’s absolutely essential that the private sector get more involved in providing funding for these necessary programs,” said John Embry, chair of the foundation.
Nowhere in the country are these types of programs more necessary than in Toronto. As Chris Spence, director of education for the Toronto District School Board pointed out, one in three children in this city are living in poverty. As such, their nutrition often suffers which can also negatively affect their education.
“We all know that if you’re hungry you can’t learn. So providing that support for our kids so that they can come to school and learn is absolutely huge because at the end of the day, an education is what is going to get them out of any circumstance that they’re in,” Spence said.
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