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Mobilizing Communities to Increase Access to Healthy Food while Schools are Closed

Updated: Apr 2, 2020

Like many other organizations across Canada, members of the Coalition for Healthy School Food are working hard to address the rising concerns around children’s lack of access to healthy food in the midst of COVID-19. Our members have been busy redirecting their efforts and funds to address the interruption in school food programs brought on by widespread school closures.

Unprecedented times call for innovative measures. In this blog post we’re pleased to share the innovative and collaborative ways that groups across Canada are working to ensure that students, who only a few weeks ago were eating healthy meals at school, continue to have access to safe and healthy food.

The Ontario Student Nutrition Program, Southwest Region, has been working with its community partners to come up with local strategies to help bridge this gap. Currently, they’re offering Good Food Boxes that are available at pick-up tents via dispersed appointment times in Windsor and London. Like many, they have seen a vibrant community spirit of people eager to help. Their distributors, including local farmers, have been happy to continue supplying product, their network has grown with new volunteers coming on board, and they have established new partnerships with local groups including the Boys and Girls Club and Big Brothers Big Sisters in Windsor.

Roots to Harvest (R2H) in Thunder Bay has been working with partners and shifting their efforts to address the current situation as soon as school closures were announced.

“If you come into Roots today, it is not the organization it was two weeks ago, it’s entirely different in response to this,” Executive Director Erin Beagle shares.

Now in coordination with their local school boards, the Red Cross, a housing unit and the Indigenous Friendship Centre, R2H is only weeks into a new program that’s offering weekly healthy meal packages to families that includes a week’s worth of light breakfasts and lunches. They have redirected their funding toward wholesale purchases for these meal packages, which go out to 10 different locations across Thunder Bay for pick up, including housing units and some churches. They’re currently packing about 330 bins of wholesome foods each week. R2H is also using their kitchen to offset the food production at some food bank locations.

FoodShare Toronto has been working closely with frontline community agencies to ramp up their Good Food Box deliveries, which have seen a significant increase in demand. They’ve also updated protocols to fit the current environment (e.g. drivers practicing physical distancing), and have begun focusing on vulnerable communities with door-to-door deliveries. During this time, they’ve also fundraised to waive delivery fees, and are currently working to coordinate with other organizations and education workers to support this emergency food distribution.

In Newfoundland, the School Lunch Association has partnered with many local groups and leveraged trucking to deliver their product to one distribution hub (that has been provided by the city) as they work with local non-profits and food banks on an as-needed basis.

The Maskwacîs Education Schools Commission is partnering with its local health unit as well as local food banks to distribute food in hampers to Four Nations and Pigeon Lake homes in Alberta. They are currently looking at strategies to deliver this food to the homes of students, families, and the elderly with medical transport vehicles.

Canadian Feed the Children (CFTC) works with 26 Indigenous Nations and communities across the country. Many of their partners are shifting programs to focus on immediate needs related to food access. This includes bulk ordering of food and distribution, and possibly using schools as distribution hubs to provide food boxes or prepared meals over the longer term. A number of partners are also providing support to hunters so that more meat can be distributed to community members. Particular focus at the moment is taking care of Elders and vulnerable families.

The Richmond Food Security Society recently changed their mission statement to “engaging a resilient local food system” and they have been working towards that. In this time of crisis they have been exploring a wide range of options including: cooking out of a commercially licensed school kitchen to prepare food for vulnerable children through the school system thanks to the “adopt a school” covid emergency funding; working with public health to support safe food delivery systems; working with Tourism Richmond to explore how restaurant staff and kitchen facilities can adopt schools; preparing healthy cooked meals with food from the Food Bank; growing at school gardens, using the food in their food service, and taking videos of the gardens so that teachers can use them as online resources; and mobilizing chefs and school kitchens that are unused.

Other Coalition members are in the midst of meeting with partners, government and other agencies to see what can be done to best fill these gaps in their communities, and determining how unused resources can be put to use during these times — e.g., procuring food from local farmers and suppliers, and securing food from unused school gardens, kitchens, restaurants, and other locations so that it can safely be redirected to hampers and meals for children and youth.

The BC Chapter of the Coalition for Healthy School Food has launched a survey to see how organizations have been impacted by the school closures, what they’re now doing, and how they can best be supported during these times. The information will then be shared with their Ministry of Education.

Below are links to some other examples from Canada, the US, and Finland that may provide some inspiration for those who are looking to distribute food to the community while schools are closed:

  • In the Moncton area, volunteers are using vans to deliver now 600 lunches a day to stops in Moncton, Riverview, Dieppe and Salisbury, (expanding to Sackville and Port Elgin) through a partnership between the United Way, Moncton Headstart, Moncton Boys and Girls Club, Riverview Boys and Girls Club, Food Depot Alimentaire and the Anglophone School District East. On weekends they are adding in extra food for the families like pasta, bread, soup and extra sandwiches.

  • Check out an article about how Even closed, Finnish schools continue to provide free lunches - originally written in the le Journal de Montréal (see this Google Doc for an English translation).

This challenging time has underscored the essential service that school food programs provide as well as the innovative and creative ways that community organizations are supporting the needs of children, youth and families in their communities while schools are closed.

We are also hearing from some Coalition members that the new models, partnerships and supply chains that they are developing during this time of crisis will strengthen their school food programs when schools open once again. We have no doubt that the partnerships and models that are established now, such as securing food procured from local farmers and suppliers, or engaging chefs who are currently without work to develop healthy meals and products for students during this time, will strengthen the movement towards a national universal cost shared school food program for Canada.

As next steps, members of the Coalition have asked to convene regular meetings so that they can continue to share information and learn from each other’s successes. If you would like to learn more about our members’ initiatives mentioned here, visit their respective websites, linked to above. Kudos to all!

by Josie DiFelice, Sustain Ontario

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