Rather than celebrate its 25th year in schools across the Waterloo Region, Nutrition for Learning plans to broaden its reach into the community as they return to a fully in-person model.
A student nutrition program providing healthy meals for 93 per cent of schools in the Waterloo Region, Nutrition for Learning has served over 20 million meals across its 170 programs.
However with inflation, the cost of food, and an “over 100 per cent increase” in need, the organization still feels the community strain despite their best efforts.
"We understand that with demographic changes and explosion of growth within the Waterloo Region that has happened, the need has increased,” said O’Neil Edwards, Executive Director at Nutrition for Learning.
“We do get some government support, but it's mostly donors out there knowing how precious resources our young people are."
While Tuesday was back-to-school for students, Nutrition for Learning opens its doors weeks before which allows schools to order what they need ahead of time. It also allows the organization time to get their hands on popular items like cheese strings in bulk amounts.
"For every dollar you spend in the store, we’re able to add value to that dollar and make it four,” said Edwards. “And so we're going to be working with communities so that they can find their nutritious meals through us."
In the last quarter century, Waterloo Region has become a “very diverse community,” and part of Nutrition for Learning’s adaptations will include food that mirrors that. The organization is looking to develop a “Community Nutrition House” as a part of its 25th-anniversary growth. This will allow the group to better work with local agencies to support them in providing healthy, nutritious snacks during community programs, rather than the cheaper alternative (i.e pop and chips).
"Especially since we’re within the school board, we’re connecting with thousands of young people and trying to meet them where they are so that they have a better understanding of (foods) connection to culture,” said Edwards. “I don’t mean we get a samosa or a burrito and that means we're being inclusive but we want to understand what it truly means to understand diversity, equity and inclusion through food."
This year will be Nutrition for Learning’s first year fully back in person. In their first attempt back in person, the organization’s Farm to School program chose three schools and their students for a field trip to learn about food agriculture at a strawberry farm. After speaking with a farmer and other activities, students returned home with a free pint of fresh strawberries. "Do you know how expensive strawberries are actually fresh, harvested two days before right off the vine? It was just an amazing experience for the students,” said Edwards.
“So being able to be in person and actually do these kinds of programming is what an in-person model offers us. Another program, Good Eats, partnered with a local chef and provided two to three schools in the Waterloo Region (as well as a women’s shelter) with free ingredients for a virtual cooking class. If (a student) doesn’t have a healthy meal, how do (they) concentrate on learning?” said Edwards.
“I think the power of education can actually break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and part of our goal is supporting that outcome."