‘Breakfast Matters’ fundraiser launched to ensure kids are fed amid rising grocery prices

By Andrea Bennett

The Ottawa Network for Education has launched its #BreakfastMatters fundraising campaign to support a growing demand for the School Breakfast Program, providing students in need with a healthy meal to kick-start their day.

Heather Norris, president and CEO of Ottawa Network for Education, told The Sam Laprade Show on Monday, Aug. 21, that rising food costs have led to an increase in demand for the School Breakfast Program, offered in schools across the Nation’s Capital.

Based on Canada’s Food Price Report 2023, overall food prices in Canada jumped 10.3 per cent as of September 2022. The report also provided predictions on annual food expenditures for a family of four, jumping by $455.44 in 2023.

Additionally, based on the 2022 Ottawa Public Health (OPH) Nutritious Food Basket and Food Insecurity in Ottawa report, the monthly cost of a family of four eating healthy in Ottawa was $1,088, up $187 compared with data from 2019.

Record-breaking inflation has also led to a rise in people accessing food banks for the first time. In turn, local food banks are facing unprecedented demand, with data from the Ottawa Food Bank revealing a 39 per cent increase in demand since 2017.

As many families struggle to make ends meet, thousands of children and youth are starting their school day on empty stomachs.

The Ottawa Network for Education’s School Breakfast Program provides students in need with a nutritious breakfast, which aims to allow all children to start their day ready to learn, on equal footing, with their peers.

Norris said they’ve seen an estimated 23 per cent increase in students accessing the program compared with pre-pandemic numbers.

“Students are happier and more engaged in their day of learning when they can start with a healthy, nutritious breakfast,” she said. “Students engage more and perform better academically, and we’re certainly seeing unprecedented demand for our program.”

According to the Ottawa Network for Education, students with access to a nutritious meal have better attendance and fewer behavioral issues – adding, of the school principals surveyed in Ottawa, 90 per cent agreed that students who participate in the program appear happier and more engaged at school.

Family income is one of the main reasons behind students arriving hungry, said the organization, with one in five children in Ottawa living in poverty.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization was serving around 13,500 meals every school day, said Norris. But today, they’re providing over 16,000 meals per school day, some days reaching 17,000 meals.

Right now, the Ottawa Network for Education works with around 200 schools, across four public school boards in the capital, with an intake process onboarding new schools each year. However, they’re also seeing a rise in the number of schools that have joined the program’s waitlist for the organizations’ breakfast program and a steady increase in the number of students that accessed the program in the previous year.

The intake process involves working with schools to set up the program, including a community development coordinator that works with staff and volunteers.

“Many schools were not purpose-built for food programs, so it’s not quite as easy as flicking a switch and starting a program,” she said. “In addition to the food, we need to ensure the school is set up with infrastructure – a fridge, utensils, supplies to prepare and serve food.”

Norris added that schools must also follow Safe Food Handling Guidelines and Student Nutrition Guidelines and offer dietary options.

“Our food and logistics coordinator and community development coordinators work directly with schools and their staff or volunteers to actually get a program in the school and make sure it’s sustainable, day after day.” she expressed.

To keep up with demand, the charity is launching a back-to-school fundraising campaign – called #Breakfast Matters – in an effort to raise funds. Norris highlighted the importance of raising funds, with $25,000 only covering one school day.

Several local restaurants – including Zak’s Diner, the Grand, and Starling – have partnered with the charitable organization to provide donations that allow kids in need to start their day with a nutritious breakfast.

“Zak’s Diners’ across the city are hosting pancake breakfasts on Sept. 12,” added Norris. “It’s going to be pancakes by donation, with door prizes, a helium balloon contest, and a silent auction to help raise additional necessary funds to support our School Breakfast Program.”

Ottawa Network for Education is calling on residents to participate in the campaign to tackle this severe problem and secure a brighter future for children and youth in Ottawa.

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