Demand for kids' school food programs is spiking — and so are their operating costs

The School Lunch Association feeds 6,500 children every day in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Heather Gillis/CBC - image credit)
The School Lunch Association feeds 6,500 children every day in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Heather Gillis/CBC - image credit)
Heather Gillis/CBC
Heather Gillis/CBC

The School Lunch Association feeds 6,500 children every day in Newfoundland and Labrador — but it's facing a financial struggle.

For the last 30 years the program has operated through ups and downs, feeding kids a nutritious lunch regardless of their families' financial situation, through a pay-what-you-can model.

But like many other charities this year, it's in need of extra donations because of the rising cost of living.

"This year we've just seen a bit of a steady decline with respect to the amount that families have been able to pay and also an increase in the amount of families that unfortunately aren't able to pay anything at all," said John Finn, the organization's executive director.

Family payments have traditionally accounted for about 90 per cent of the program's revenue, said Finn, with about five per cent coming from the provincial government and the rest from donations.

But this year, the revenue from food sales just isn't there, he said, prompting the organization to ask families who can pay more for the program to step up.

"We just ask that you kindly take a moment to reflect on what your family's financial situation looks like before you place your order for next month," said Finn.

"We know there are many other expenses and we know that as we get into January families will be challenged again from recovering from Christmas expenses."

The cost of operation is about $4 per child, per day, said Finn, or $84 for the 21 lunch days in January.

Heather Gillis/CBC
Heather Gillis/CBC

About 800 families couldn't make contributions to the program last year, he said, but that number has ballooned to about 2,000 this year.

"Naturally, operating a pay-what-you-can model is tricky, as you're really not sure as to how much revenue you may achieve," said Finn.

"Just in the short few months of the school year, this is the situation we find ourselves in and we'll take it back with our staff and administrative team and certainly look at other ways to find some other revenue sources as we get into the new year."

Not alone

The School Lunch Association isn't the only kid-focused food program challenged by rising demand and higher costs.

The Kids Eat Smart Foundation is also feeling the pinch.

The foundation covers breakfast for kids through its 275 clubs across the province — about 40,000 meals each school day, and food costs are rising parallel with demand for the program, said executive director Celina Stoyles.

"When we look at our cost and compare it to this time last year in our school year, there is a 94 per cent increase in our cost," said Stoyles, adding one in four children in Newfoundland and Labrador are food-insecure.

"We're hearing from children that sometimes the food at school is their only meal.  Children have to come to school so we need to ensure that there's food at school."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador