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Regional charity aims to fill the weekend gap in student nutrition programs

This year over 800 children living with chronic hunger in the region received weekend support from Food4Kids

Before launching Food4Kids Waterloo Region in 2016, their executive director, Kelly-Sue Oberle, worked at Nutrition for Learning for eight years, an organization that offers universal access student nutrition programs during school. 

But she became plagued by the question, what happens to these kids on the weekend? 

“It was noticed that over the weekend there was a portion of kids who were getting supported throughout the week, through different nutrition programs, and who would go home on Friday with little or nothing at home, and then come back hungry on Monday morning,” said Jennifer Birnstihl, marketing coordinator and fundraiser for Food4Kids. 

“It was a gap that always bothered her, so she started this charity as a way of filling it,” Birnstihl said. 

“There's nothing better than going to work every day knowing that you're making a difference in somebody's life." 

Every Friday, Food4Kids sends nutritious food bags home through the school system to the kids who are registered in their program. 

“These are kids that are living with chronic hunger. And they get a lovely fresh food bag with enough food in it to get them through the weekend,” Birnstihl said. 

“We buy them what we think they need. So we actually plan the menu very carefully every week with kids in mind, and with the intention of meeting different food groups like protein, milk, cereal, bread, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

“So we work very closely with the school staff, because they're the ones that are in the school working every day, and they see the kids, they know the kids, they can see people who need our help. So we rely on them to identify children that are in need. And then they ask the parents if they would like [their kids] to be a part of the program, and they have to fill out a registration form.” 

They also rely heavily on their hundreds of volunteers that help keep them going, who do everything from helping bag up loose bulk food to packaging the bags that get sent home with kids, to delivering food to the school.

Birnstihl says there’s a huge need in the community for services like this. 

During the 2019-2020 school year, 600 children living with chronic hunger in the region received weekend support from Food4Kids.

By the end of this year, they will have served 870 children for the 40 weekends during the school year, as well as providing daily support during the 84 days of school breaks.

“Studies have shown that there's at least 2500 kids who could use our help. So it is a big jump. But we've been slowly growing every year trying to help more and more kids,” she said.

She says the need has increased dramatically since the pandemic hit. 

“We've never had so many phone calls. We're getting a lot of calls from schools and even parents call us. Sometimes they find our phone number and call us directly and they need our help.”

But when people call, they can’t help right away. As a small charity, they have to stick to their budget for the year so they can keep helping the kids currently registered with them. 

“Almost all the money we receive to run the program is either through private funding or small grants and donations. So while we would love to add everyone in, we can't.” 

There are currently 180 kids on their waiting list, and 10 schools who have asked to be added but can’t be accommodated at the moment. 

Addressing the wait listed children and schools is the next step, Birnstihl says. 

“We're hoping by the end of 2022, to get to 1000 kids, which would add 140 kids. But it's going to have to continue to grow on a year to year basis unless we get some incredibly large financial donation,” she said. 

They have a campaign running right now to sponsor a healthy holiday food box for a child in their program. 

“We need to purchase 420 boxes to get delivered to the children right before Christmas break; for $25 they get a giant box of fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said. “But also just any donations in general are very needed and welcomed. And people can follow us on social media and just help spread the word. 

“Someone who's very helpless and not doing well gets this bag of food and it can completely change their life,” she said. 

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