Providers of affordable meal programs face pressure of rising food costs, surge in demand

·3 min read
School districts across B.C. are trying to meet the need for affordable meals for students while facing the rising costs of producing them. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
School districts across B.C. are trying to meet the need for affordable meals for students while facing the rising costs of producing them. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

The rising cost of food combined with surging demand for affordable meal programs is putting pressure on school districts and non-profits aiming to serve up meals for students who need them most.

Soaring inflation rates over the past few months have driven a dramatic increase in requests from families for food programs delivered by Hope for the Nations, says Chloe Kam, lead program manager at the Kelowna, B.C.-based non-profit.

At the same time, the cost of making breakfast and after-school meals for students in the local school district has climbed.

"Our average cost of breakfast used to be only about $1.50, and now we're looking at $2.10 per breakfast," Kam told host Chris Walker on CBC's Daybreak South.

"That is a pretty sharp increase considering we sent out over 100,000 breakfasts last year ... Inflation is drastically affecting our budgets."

Rising cost of food

The cost of living has continued to rise at the fastest pace in decades across Canada, with the official inflation rate rising at a 6.8 per cent annual pace in April, a 31-year high.

The latest findings from B.C. youth advocacy group First Call show that more than 15,000 children across the province were living in impoverished households in 2019.

B.C. school districts that provide their own meal programs echo Kam's concerns about the rising cost of food.

Principal Sean Della Vedova of Coquitlam's Central Community School says while staff deliver breakfast and lunch to students daily, the school also works with non-profit organizations such as the Rotary Club to deliver food hampers to students' families weekly.

The school has around 370 students. Della Vedova says 300 to 400 lunches are delivered to students each day, with about 80 breakfasts distributed each morning.

He says the line for meal programs last year was longer than he'd expected.

"There were families that I hadn't seen before in terms of accessing our supports," he said on CBC's The Early Edition.

The B.C. government website shows that at least 20 school districts across the province provide meal programs, either by themselves or in partnership with non-profit organizations such as the United Way and Bowls of Hope Society, as well as with private companies such as Save-On-Foods.

Earlier this week, the B.C. government announced its commitment to invest almost $64 million in 60 school districts across the province, and part of the money will go to meal programs.

In a news release, the B.C. chapter of the Coalition for Healthy School Food said it welcomes the province's one-time investment, which it says will support the expansion of school meal programs.

But the chapter's co-ordinator, Samantha Gambling, says the ultimate solution to food insecurity among youth is a government-funded permanent universal food program for K-12 students.

"We can't do it without public investment, and we can't do it alone," she said. "There really does need to be provincial and federal support for local school districts, schools and school communities to develop their own programs or to expand their existing programs."

She adds that from her experience working with the Bulkley Valley school district in northwestern B.C., school districts in rural and remote communities face challenges in accessing food options all year round besides the rising costs of food.