The Child Nutrition Council of Manitoba will be able to clear its wait list of schools so they can clear grocery store shelves and feed more hungry students this fall, owing to the province doubling annual funding for the organization.
Provincial officials announced Thursday an increase of $1.3 million for the council, which has provided application-based grants for K-12 breakfast, lunch and snack programs since 2001. It will now receive $2.5 million to subsidize healthy meals throughout the school year.
In the spring of 2020, a sudden surge in applications from school leaders prompted the council to create a wait list — the first in its history.
“We were stuck with a decision: do we reduce funding to all schools in order to get the new applicants on or do we create a wait list? And that was a really tough decision for our board,” said Wendy Bloomfield, chairwoman of the council that assists in serving nearly 40,000 students on a daily basis.
“We did not want to say no to students that need support, but we also didn’t want to jeopardize the existing programs.”
Not only will all 22 schools on standby be supported now, but Bloomfield said the new allotment will allow the council to increase dollars for existing programs.
The organization aims to provide its roughly 300 recipients with 20 per cent of each of their calculated food costs. In recent years, it has been able to foot less than 10 per cent of applicants’ bills due to rising inflation and COVID-19-related costs.
Education Minister Wayne Ewasko and MLA Sarah Guillemard, minister overseeing the mental health and community wellness department, announced the additional funding during a news conference in a kitchen located inside Acadia Junior High School in south Winnipeg.
The Tory MLAs spoke about the importance of fuelling learners with nutritious food so they can focus on learning rather than rumbling stomachs.
“Many families have struggled to access healthy and affordable food throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. As children and their families prepare for the start of another busy school year, it is vital that Manitoba children have reliable access to nourishing food, not only for the academic performances, but for optimal development and overall well-being,” Guillemard told reporters.
Children come to class hungry for a variety of reasons, ranging from limited access to food at home to early drop-offs, lengthy commutes to hectic mornings, Ewasko said.
The education minister noted research shows hunger and poor nutrition is linked to challenges with achievement and attendance.
No. 45 of the K-12 commission’s 75 recommendations to better schooling in Manitoba called on the province to “improve access to nutritious food” and “expand health-promoting meal programs.”
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society has long advocated for a universal meal program across public schools. There are more than 700 K-12 buildings.
Union vice-president Nathan Martindale called the new money “a step in the right direction,” but indicated teachers are reporting a growing number of tired and hungry pupils.
“Nutrition programs are cobbled together through donations and grants, such as this one — but, at MTS, we strongly believe that they need to fund all of these programs so that it isn’t up to an application process and every child is getting a healthy start to their school day,” he said.
If there was a universal program, educators and parent council volunteers would not have to complete the time-intensive process of gathering donations or applying for a limited number of nutrition grants, Martindale added.
Bloomfield said the council could always use more funding, but the latest announcement “will go a long way.”
Home economics teacher Patricia Pawluk said tiredness and behaviour challenges among students can be connected to hunger.
Additional funding from the nutrition council will allow Acadia to offer more “substantial meals,” including sandwiches, soups and stews — and, in turn, address the above issues, Pawluk said.
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press