An annual healthy food program aimed at tackling the issue of food insecurity among school-aged children in Canada is launching earlier this year and getting a boost to help children stay nourished amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since 2015, Food Banks Canada’s After the Bell program has seen the distribution of hundreds of healthy and fresh food packs across the country to help ensure children stay fed during the summer months, once the school year is over and school nutrition programs come to an end.
This year, the program is getting a head start to fill the hunger gap since access to school food programs for children has been cut off sooner than in years past due to COVID-19, according to Karen Theriault with Feed Nova Scotia, the provincial association for Food Banks Canada.
“Because so many schools were forced to close early, it was recognized that a lot of kids were going to be missing those school nutrition programs sooner than they might have otherwise,” said Theriault.
“And so After the Bell, which seeks to fill that gap once the summer school programs let out, has kicked in a little earlier.”
Food Banks Canada will send a total of 130,000 food packs to approximately 150 communities across the country this summer – a 30 per cent increase from the total number of food packs distributed in previous years.
Of that total, Feed Nova Scotia will receive and distribute 9,600 healthy food packs in the province, which Theriault called a “big increase” over last year’s total of 8,200 food packs.
“We’re just getting ready now to start shipments out to our food banks and meal programs here in Nova Scotia,” she said.
“We’re hoping that in the next few weeks those will start to make it out to those front-line community organizations and make it into the hands of the kids.”
The food packs would normally be distributed over an eight-week period in July and August, but this year, the program is slated to kick off in mid-June in Nova Scotia.
They consist of non-perishable items including organic shelf stable milk, cereal, oatmeal, hummus and crackers, which Feed Nova Scotia complements with fresh produce – two apples, an orange and a pear.
The food packs got a very positive reaction from the children who received them during summer camp day trips last year, said Theriault.
“(A food bank co-ordinator) said the kids would always get such a big smile on their face when they got their food pack that day and she said they always go through their fruit first and that would give them sort of that little punch of nutrition to get through their day and then they would want to eat the oatmeal last thing before they went home,” she said.
According to Food Banks Canada, 34.1 percent of food bank users in Canada are children who represent only 19.4 per cent of the total population of Canada.
And in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, at least 42,000 people accessed food banks in Nova Scotia and more than 13,000 of them were children, according to Theriault.
Theriault said the After the Bell program is “only addressing a small piece of the problem” when it comes to tackling the issue of food insecurity in Canada and that the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy and food security has not yet been seen, but noted “every small piece makes a difference.”
“Child hunger is a symptom of family hunger and the only true way that we’ll really address long-term food insecurity is a good social policy,” she said.
“But in the meantime, we just need to make sure we’re doing the best we can to ensure that no one goes hungry, especially kids.”