Program starts small, dreams big

·4 min read

Canada is the only G7 country without a nationwide nutritious school lunch program.

But the partners in an ambitious new made-in-Chatham-Kent program are hoping to change that.

On Monday, the inaugural launch of the “We Are One National Nutritional School Lunch Program” took place at St. Elizabeth Catholic School in Wallaceburg.

Founder Cathy Staal, who has a background working in education, said starting the venture has been a dream of hers and other like-minded people, such as activist Sally Joyce, for about 17 years.

“We want to help people who are living in poverty,” Staal said, adding the program’s goal is to provide all elementary school students with access to a nutritious lunch – regardless of their economic status.

Feeding all the children takes away the stigmatism, she added.

“This is our pilot project,” Staal said of St. Elizabeth. “The need for a national school program is big.”

The benefits of good nutrition for health and brain development are well documented. One child in six in Canada faces food insecurity every day. Students who have access to healthy food are better equipped to learn. Studies show well-nourished children are happier, with fewer physical and psychological problems.

Present economic circumstances make the need for such a program even more pressing, Staal noted. The strain of rising inflation, coupled with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, has made the economic situation of vulnerable people even more precarious.

“We see the need,” said Staal. “With the aftermath of COVID, families are the hardest hit.

“Parents need the help and the assurance their child will get at least one nutritious meal a day.

“It’s all about everyone.”

Calling We Are One a private/social enterprise, Staal, as chief executive officer, said the proposal will see the spending of $16 per day per child. Fifteen of those dollars will go to the restaurant providing the food, while the remainder will go to spending for supplies or other costs.

There won’t be any junk food. Staal said all recipes must be vetted by Chatham-Kent Public Health before they go on the menu.

So far, the We Are One project is attracting some major players. Brian Machado of Chatham’s popular Churrascaria Restaurant has agreed to act as one of the venture’s culinary directors, along with business partner Matt Harlick.

The Chilled Cork and Shady Pine restaurants are also involved, and Staal said We Are One is open to welcoming new partners.

There’s also a long list of community team members helping get the venture off the ground.

Currently, the program is in the process of seeking support from all levels of government.

Machado said the Churrascaria crew was up at 5:30 a.m. Monday morning getting ready for the launch.

He said he and his business partners, who got involved with the project pre-pandemic, are committed to the cause.

“The number one reason is we want to feed every child in Chatham-Kent a nutritious meal,” he said, noting the need is there.

Machado said it is hoped local government will get on board to help fund the lunch program start-up for CK’s 6,000 elementary school-aged children.

He said the business model to use local restaurants to supply meals is sound and will be an economic driver to assist the hard-hit food industry.

Machado said Churrascaria’s involvement is not financial; the partners simply want to help.

“The cause is to feed kids,” he said. “If God can give us the talents, we can help.”

In the works for a number of years, We are One was verbally endorsed by the Liberal government in 2017, Staal said, however progress stalled with the onset of the pandemic.

“We got a little discouraged,” Staal admitted, although she said We Are One has been well received by many politicians, including Chatham-Kent Mayor Darrin Canniff.

Staal said team members have restarted talks with the officials from the federal Ministry of Families, Children and Social Development.

They have also opened lines of communication with Chatham-Kent–Leamington MP Dave Epp and Lambton-Kent-Middlesex MP Liane Rood.

The ask from We are One comes on the heels of the federal government’s recent decision to support $10 a day childcare nationwide.

Staal said there’s another piece to We Are One. She sees it as tool for reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

“This is a pathway to justice,” Staal said, speaking as a First Nation person with Metis status. “This will bring us together and we can all move forward together.

“A program like this brings us all hope,” Staal noted. “It’s not a hand out, it’s a hand up.”

For more information or to find out how to get involved visit the We Are One – Cathren’s “Bon Appetit” INC page on Facebook or the http://Schoollunchprogram.ca website.

Pam Wright, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chatham Voice

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