With students heading back to school across Toronto this week, education workers say they are feeling the pinch as breakfast and lunch programs face a funding shortfall due to the rising cost of food.
This school year, the Ontario Student Nutrition Program, a network made up of 14 agencies across the province that provides free daily breakfasts, snacks and lunches, is expecting to serve 221,000 students in Toronto this year.
But Catherine Parsonage, CEO of Toronto Foundation for Student Success and the co-chair of Student Nutrition Ontario, says the volunteer-run local programs may be forced to operate at reduced capacity.
"This will be the most critical year that student nutrition programs, breakfast, lunch and snack programs have ever faced," Parsonage said.
"The need and the demand is increasing exponentially among students, and the cost of food is out of control."
Parsonage is referring to food prices that rose 9.7 per cent in May in Canada compared to the previous year, with the cost of meat, fruits and vegetables, as well as pantry staples like flour and cooking oil rising 30 per cent.
That in turn is pushing up the price of daily meals that help at-risk students gain access to nutritious food. Parsonage said it not only affects their physical and mental well-being but it also drastically affects their behaviour at school.
Parsonage said a 500-calorie breakfast — which typically includes a vegetable or fruit, protein and whole grains — used to cost between $1 to $1.20. Now, she says that price has gone up to $2.00.
The local programs, which are funded by Student Nutrition Ontario, the province and donations are also receiving $16.84 million from the City of Toronto for the school year. The figure includes a 2.5 per cent increase from last year, which was approved by city council to address the higher costs.
The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services says the province is also investing $27.9 million in the Student Nutrition Program this school year.
"We recognize the important role that nutrition plays in learning and development," said Jennifer Rushby, a spokesperson for the ministry, in a statement to CBC Toronto.
"That is why the government invests in the Ontario Student Nutrition Program to help provide healthy breakfasts, snacks and lunches to school-aged children across the province, so they are ready to learn, develop healthy eating habits and feel a sense of belonging at school."
But Parsonage says the current funding doesn't nearly cover the cost.
"Even together, between the provincial funding and the city funding, programs are getting about 25 cents a meal on average," Parsonage said.
Khudaija Sheikh, director of operations at the Albion Neighbourhood Services Boys & Girls Club, located in Toronto's west end near Finch Avenue West and Islington Avenue, said the breakfast programs the club has been running for 25 years are crucial to the community.
"Many of these children come from a low-income families. They are fighting food insecurities and they have complex barriers that they face," Sheikh said.
The programs, which operate at Greenholme Junior Middle School and North Kipling Junior Middle School in Etobicoke, serve roughly 150 students.
"The nutrition program is one of the programs that is chronically underfunded," she said.
"We need more supports from not only the local community, from our volunteers, but also from provincial and federal levels as well," she added.
"Because it is very important that we create those lasting changes for our children."