Children in Calgary facing higher risk of hunger this summer without school nutrition programs

Originally Published in the Calgary Herald on Aug 07, 2023  •  4 minute read

By Eva Ferguson

Calgary Food Bank volunteer Marion Schellen looks through a cart of items for school aged children at the Calgary centre on Aug. 4. Jim Wells/Postmedia

Families whose kids benefit from school nutrition programs are facing a tough summer with high food costs and limited supports in July and August, advocates say.

Leaders in youth nutrition worry that while some resources such as free lunch at day camps or food bank hampers are available, a growing number of children are facing food insecurity this summer.

“Summer is a challenging time for families navigating food insecurity,” says Bethany Ross, executive director at Brown Bagging For Calgary’s Kids (BB4CK).

“There are many gaps in our system and many kids are missing the supports they really depend on during the school year.

“But this summer especially, families are also facing very high costs. Groceries are still very expensive. There are higher rents, skyrocketing utilities, child care, and soon they’ll be dealing with the costs of back-to-school, getting supplies, filling backpacks and all of those things.”

Subsidized day camps only help a fraction of children facing food insecurity

BB4CK provides free lunches for up to 6,500 kids every day between September and June through school nutrition programs across the city.

Ross says demand for those free meals has increased by 18 per cent over the past year, and by at least 75 per cent since the fall of 2020.

During the summer months, BB4CK partners with a variety of subsidized day camps, providing free lunches to about 10,000 kids.

But she admits that’s “a drop in the bucket,” with many kids facing food insecurity unable to enrol in day camps during summer.

Many, she said, are forced to stay in their homes for safety reasons, while parents go to work leaving little food in the pantry.

“The kids I’m thinking about most are the ones whose parents are going to work today, who say to them, ‘Stay here, I’m locking the door, don’t answer until I get home, and I’ll try and make some dinner tonight.’ ”

Ross says families are facing many tough choices, pooling resources to try getting food on the table every day.

“None of those choices are easy.”

Grocery prices have risen nearly 10 per cent in the past year

According to a report released this spring by Dalhousie University, consumers can expect food prices to continue rising this year.

Canada’s Food Price Report 2023 predicts a five to seven per cent food-price increase, with the most substantial hikes expected in basics such as produce, dairy and meat.

The report forecasts an average family of four will spend up to $16,288.41 on food in 2023, an increase of $1,065.60 from last year.

Statistics Canada reported that as of May 2023, grocery prices rose nearly 10 per cent from last year.

But Ross says many families are still “too scared or too embarrassed to ask for help. Or they just don’t know what is available for them in the community.”

Judith Barry, co-founder and director of government relations with Breakfast Club of Canada, says nutrition programs for children are critical during the summer months.

“Children are the most valuable resource we have as a country — they are the next generation. But when they go hungry, we are putting them behind, because they cannot strive to be their best selves.”

Bins of lunches at Brown Bagging for Calgary’s Kids are stacked for delivery on March 14, 2022. Gavin Young/Postmedia

Breakfast Club of Canada supports more than 30,000 Alberta kids in 285 school nutrition programs during the school year, providing breakfast and snacks.

But Barry says there are just as many schools — nearly 300 — now on waiting lists to receive breakfast supports this fall, but funding is lacking.

“We would like to expand our programming during the year, and during the summer, but the funding support is just not there.

“It’s not good news, and it’s very concerning.”

Food Bank handed out over 14,000 hampers this July, up from the 9,000 given out in July 2022

Officials with the Calgary Food Bank said that while summer is normally less busy, July saw exceptionally high demand, with a record number of hampers handed out.

Spokeswoman Betty Jo Kaiser said the food bank is handing out an average of 700 hampers every day — higher than its average daily peak of 500 at Christmas.

In July, the food bank handed out 14,625 hampers for Calgarians in need, a huge spike from July 2022 when 9,083 hampers were distributed.

And among those needing hampers this summer, Kaiser said 32 per cent are children under the age of 18 — a reflection of school nutrition programs hitting pause.

“Hunger doesn’t take a summer vacation,” she said.

“It doesn’t take a long weekend or a 10-day break. Hunger and food insecurity is always there for so many families.”

Kaiser also said this summer is especially difficult because of the high cost of living.

“Right now, the struggle is real. It’s a combination of things: inflation, food, rent, just the high cost of living overall.

“It’s that perfect storm we’ve been talking about now for months.”

Hoping to fill the summer gaps, the food bank is working with community partners through Food Link, providing snacks and bulk foods to a variety of summer programs including Easter Seals Camp Horizon, Hope Mission After School Programs and Calgary Bridge Foundation for Youth.

“We are doing something about this one kid at a time.” – Jane Wachowich – Executive Director, Youth Centres of Calgary.

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