Michelle Gibson notices she's been serving more meals recently during lunchtime at Kinkora Regional High School.
She's one of the staff members at the school's kitchen, cooking up more than 200 lunches for students at the school and three others in the area.
Most meals go to students whose parents have ordered online ahead of time as part of the P.E.I. School Food Program, which provides lunches to all of the Island's public schools on a pay-what-you-can model, to a maximum of $5.50 per meal.
At Kinkora Regional High School, some extra meals are put out for students to grab and pay what they can.
"We even notice lately … more orders, more kids that aren't able to pay," she said.
"They know us, and they don't have a problem coming up and saying, 'Michelle, I don't have anything. I don't have any money.' And we're like, 'that doesn't matter, here's your meal.'"
The school isn't the only one that's seeing an increased demand for the P.E.I. School Food Program, which is now in its third year.
Menu tweaked to keep costs down
Executive director Katelyn MacLean said the organization has served about 520,000 meals to students across the Island this school year, which is a 20-per-cent jump in orders over last year.
P.E.I. is leading the country in food insecurity, and more than one-third of Island children live in homes without a stable source of healthy food, according to numbers released by Statistics Canada earlier this month.
"I do think that given the economic situation in P.E.I. over the last year or two, we are having more families participate for that reason," MacLean said.
But at the same time, the amount that families are paying for the meals has steadily declined, she said. With less money coming in while operation costs have gone up, the program has had to tweak its menu to keep costs down.
The menu in the winter now has seasonal produce such as potatoes, carrots, onions and turnips, which are more accessible and affordable on P.E.I. in the wintertime, MacLean said.
"We are committed to providing a healthy lunch option for students, so we aren't moving to the highly processed items," she said.
"We're just swapping out simply, maybe a different vegetable for another one that might be able to source closer to home or might be a little more cost-effective."
More funding needed
Ryan McAleer, the principal at Kinkora Regional High School, said the P.E.I. School Food Program is needed more than ever.
"I really think that we'd be in bad shape if this program went away," he said.
"Without this program, I know for a fact we'd have students that simply wouldn't be able to have meals for breakfast or for lunch. And some of our students, we even provide the meals to be able to take home for supper."
The school doesn't see any stigma around the program, McAleer said, because the system is entirely anonymous, where items delivered will look the same whether the student paid nothing or full price.
"I'm really hopeful that this program continues on into the future."
In order for that to happen, more money from the provincial government is needed, MacLean said.
"As pay-what-you-can rates decline and the number of students using the program increases, the funding needs are increasing with that as well."
MacLean said the organization is negotiating with the province for next year's funding, hoping to receive more than $3.5 million it received last year.
Program staff will be paying close attention to the new provincial budget that is expected to be released soon, she said.
The group, which recently achieved charity status, is also looking for other funding sources such as donations and sponsorships.