While Ottawa is amongst the cities with the lowest percentage of children living in low-income households in Canada, child poverty is still an unfortunate reality in our city. Nearly 1 in 5 children in Ottawa don’t have enough to eat. Cost of living has risen over the years, leaving families to make difficult financial decisions in order to stay afloat. This often leaves children without access to adequate or proper nutrition, and the consequences affect many aspects of their lives, including education. Time and again, research has shown that hunger and malnutrition negatively affects children’s cognitive, behaviour, and physical development. The good news is that our community is actively addressing this concern, and many schools across the four school boards have implemented nutrition programs for their students.
While these programs positively impact student’s performance in schools, there is major concern for when school ends for the summer. Time away from school can cause what is called the summer nutrition gap. Students who don’t receive continued support in their nutrition over the summer are much more likely to be at an academic disadvantage compared to their peers when they return to school in the fall. Parents in low-income families also face additional hardship during the summer, as they must factor in food expenses without the support of nutrition programs.
Thankfully, ONFE’s School Breakfast Program is supporting nutrition programs into the summer currently with eleven participating schools. At one high school, 38 students, considered at-risk and ranging from grade 6 to 8 are signed up for the snack program. These students are taking part in the Literacy and Numeracy Program, specifically in a not-for-credit course to help them build and strengthen their math skills for the upcoming school year. Maria runs the Literacy and Numeracy Program at this school, and the healthy snack program which is funded by ONFE’s School Breakfast Program.
One of her many duties includes preparing the snacks before the students come in during their 15-minute break at 10AM. Maria brings out the fruits: bananas, apples, raisins, and grapes that she separates into smaller bunches, so the students can easily grab them. Other snacks include rice cakes, granola bars, yogurt tubes, and rice pudding. She places the snacks in a line along a long table in a vacant classroom. The students come in, all glad to be having a break and some discussing with their peers about which snacks to pick. They are quick to go across the table; some picking up only one or two items while others take more for the day. Within four minutes, all the 35 students have taken their snacks, and go to spend the rest of their break outside the classroom.
This is the first year that this high school has had a nutrition program extended into the summer, but the results seem to be very positive. “I see that students are academically succeeding, are comfortable, and are more engaged in learning,” says Maria. She also mentions that students and parents are pleasantly surprised to find that it is a full snack program.
This scene re-occured every school day until the end of July and was also happening in ten other schools across Ottawa, as the Summer Snack Program piloted in five schools last summer. Maria, like other teachers organizing the summer program, wishes it could extend into the rest of summer (as the program only runs concurrently with summer school) but is grateful for the impact it has. “I enjoy running ONFE’s Summer Snack Program because kids are getting good food, filling their bellies. The difference between this and a regular snack is that I know what they’re getting, and 38 is a high number that I can be sure of–even if some take one snack and others fill up.”
It is thanks to the hard work and dedication from Maria and other ONFE Summer Snack Program organizers that are helping to address the summer nutrition gap so that all summer students have the chance to succeed on an equal footing to their peers. ONFE hopes to grow the Summer Snack program next year and is looking for community funding to help meet this goal. If you would like to support the School Breakfast Program and help us ensure all students have access to a healthy snack or meal, please visit https://onfe-rope.ca/get-involved/donate/.
Thumbnail photo: Anne-Marie Bouchard