As their children go back to school, families are struggling with higher food costs, and more families are turning to food banks for help or enrolling in meal-assistance programs, such as food aid programs. B. Breakfast programs offered in schools.
With August inflation currently at 7.6 percent year-on-year, cooling slightly from July’s 8.1 percent, food prices continue to rise, with the average grocery bill 9.9 percent higher than a year ago.
Even before prices began to rise, food bank visits increased 20.3 percent in 2021 compared to two years earlier, according to the 2021 Food Banks Canada Hunger Census. A large percentage of the users of these food banks — 33.3 percent — were children, despite making up just 19.1 percent of the population.
Anne Watters, manager of community and family services at The Salvation Army of Fort Erie, said demand has increased, along with a sharp drop in donations.
The result has left the service organization struggling to keep up.
“They’ve gone down quite a bit,” Watters said of the donations. “We don’t have people coming and bringing eggs or boxes (of groceries). Our regular donors also have to stretch.”
As a result, Watters has started buying groceries himself to keep groceries on the shelves.
And to complicate matters further, more and more people are turning to the board for help.
“We serve 330 people a month,” she said. “It’s quite a lot for us. Normally it would be between 200 and 250 people.”
The number of families supported by the agency has also increased, with 150 supported households.
“Usually it’s about half,” Watters said. Jessica Stephenson, program manager at Niagara Nutrition Partners (NNP), said the group was caught in “a perfect storm” as needs increase while donations dwindle.
“Our spending on food, equipment and supplies is increasing at an alarming rate, and each program is becoming more and more expensive to maintain as a result,” she said.
Currently, 2,238 school-age children at Fort Erie are receiving meals — breakfast, lunch and a snack — and Stephenson said parents are counting on that help. In total, NNP has served 207,927 on-site meals.
“They really rely on the school programs,” Stephenson said. “They plan the food into their budget.”
In all, NNP provides meals to 24,936 children across the region, and keeping those bellies full is becoming a challenge, Stephenson said. Kindergarten through 12th graders are supported at 11 schools in the Fort Erie area, seven by the District School Board of Niagara and four by the Niagara District Catholic School Board.
“We have received anecdotal observations from school staff and program coordinators that more children than ever are arriving at school with inappropriate or missing lunches,” Stephenson said.
A DSBN spokesman said the support students are receiving is important and it is grateful for the work of groups like NNP to ensure students are fed.
“The commitment, support and kindness of our many partners gives students from Kindergarten through Grade 12 the confidence that they can count on their school and community to provide them with nourishment and support,” said Carolyn Loconte, Communications Officer for DSBN.
Stephenson, meanwhile, said NNP is asking for help from the community as the funding it receives from the province covers only a fraction of the cost of maintaining the program.
“The rest is a funding gap that we are working tirelessly to fill. This year, more than ever, we rely on the support of our community.”
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: Higher food prices are not only impacting families’ coffers, but also organizations that provide food aid through food banks and school feeding programs to needy families who, despite dwindling donations, have more people to help.
— With files from Brilee Sears/Metroland