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Advocates, teacher unions call for free school breakfast, lunch for Ontario students

TORONTO — Advocacy groups, teachers' unions and food banks are calling on the Ontario government to provide a free breakfast and lunch program in schools across the province to address food insecurity among students.
Ontario's Education Minister Stephen Lecce waits for his introduction before speaking to the media at an Etobicoke library, in Toronto, Sunday, April 16, 2023. A group of 14 advocacy groups, organizations and teachers' unions are calling on the government of Ontario to provide free breakfast and lunch meals for all students in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — Advocacy groups, teachers' unions and food banks are calling on the Ontario government to provide a free breakfast and lunch program in schools across the province to address food insecurity among students. 

In a letter sent to Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Children Minister Michael Parsa on Wednesday, the collection of organizations said many children in Ontario are forced to rely on food banks for their nutritional needs.

The groups, including the Toronto Youth Cabinet, Food Banks Canada and the province's four major teachers' unions, said current student nutrition programs in Ontario are seeing increased demand but are not meeting the needs of students.

The organizations said Ontario should provide a universal free school breakfast and lunch program to all students and guarantee that schools have sufficient infrastructure, resources and funding to deliver the meals.

Stephen Mensah, executive director of the Toronto Youth Cabinet — the city's official youth advisory body — said the benefits of providing universal school meals to students include increasing their school achievement, reducing absenteeism and promoting good health.

"No child should go to school hungry," Mensah said at a news conference on Wednesday.

"The child's right to food is not a luxury that should be experienced by few, but a necessity deserved by all."   

Mensah said food insecurity has a profound effect on the health and well-being of children and on the education they receive. 

"We cannot expect a hungry student to do good in school, be focused and attentive, happy and ready to learn," he said.

"It is unacceptable to have children be deprived of their right to food and adequate nutrition."

Having a universal school meal program removes the stigma that's associated with the notion that only those who are experiencing poverty receive food at school, Mensah said.

And implementing such a program guarantees nutritional benefits for all students, he said. 

"Not everyone who even brings food to school is getting the right nutrients," Mensah said. "A universal free breakfast and lunch program will ensure that all of our students receive the equivalent nutrients that they need."

Henry Chiu, director of development and marketing at the North York Harvest Food Bank in Toronto, said an unprecedented number of people have been relying on food banks in recent months, including many families with children. 

"With our network of 37 agencies, we're serving more than 20,000 (people) each month," he said. "This is the highest number we've seen in our 36-year history."

Chiu said about 36 per cent of families that use food bank services in Toronto have children in their households. 

"We are at a crisis level," he said. 

"We need everybody to work together to make sure that our youth are able to go to school with a full stomach. Not only enough food, but enough quality food."

Hunger harms health and can have a serious effect on the health system, Chiu said. A universal school meal program can help address that issue. 

"It helps lessen the load on our health care system," he said "It is an investment not only now but in our future as well."

The Ontario government didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the calls for a universal school meals program.

Feed Ontario, a collective of 1,200 direct and affiliate food banks and other organizations that work to address food insecurity, said in a report in November that 587,000 adults and children visited the province's food banks a total of 4.3 million times between April 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022. 

It said about 30 per cent of food bank clients were under the age of 18.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2023. 

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press