Charities providing in-school meal programs face rising inflation as they begin a new school year

Charities providing in-school meal programs face rising inflation as they begin a new school year

Cost-per-meal offered by one Vancouver charity has risen to $4 from $3, a 33 per cent increase, during a time when food inflation is running at 10 per cent.

A unique meal program offered to students and prepared with help from students at two Vancouver schools is among several such programs across B.C. feeling the pinch from rising food costs.Program operators are having to tweak menus and stretch their dollars at a time when school districts report demand for in-school meals is on the rise.“Most of our meals are vegetable-forward but there are meat dishes for the omnivore students and we’ve had to make a drastic cut in the serving size,” said Tasha Sawyer, the chef-in-residence leading the LunchLab program at Vancouver Alternate Secondary School. “Instead of serving a single portion of chicken, we are making a chicken and vegetable stir-fry in order to stretch that supply.”

Sawyer said inflation for food pushed up the price-per-plate for a student meal to $4 from $3, a 33 per cent increase, at the start of the 2021-22 school year. It remains $4 for this year, but “that may change if inflation costs continue to rise.”

She said overall inflation is running at seven-to-eight per cent, but for food alone, it’s at 10 per cent.

The meal program is served twice a week to students at the high school and is provided free to students enrolled in the school’s other meal program, and offered at a sliding scale of $1-to-$5 each meal for others, said Alexa Pitoulis, executive director of Fresh Roots, a non-profit group working with school communities to provide locally sourced and grown food.

Some of the vegetables come from a school garden and other ingredients are sourced locally, whenever possible, and students help in the kitchen, she said.

The LunchLab is also providing meals at Lord Roberts elementary and the hope is to expand to other schools, Pitoulis said.

The program was feeding 180 students before COVID-19, and last year numbers were up to 150. This year, “we might have to cap it at 100-to-125,” she said.

“Like all non-profits, we are trying to constantly make adjustments and we’re not exactly sure what’s coming” in terms of inflation.

Fundraising for the program from private donors, grants and foundations is also affected by inflation as fewer charity dollars are available, said Pitoulis.

“We’re definitely trying to understand the impact and we’re being cautious,” she said.

Across the Vancouver school district, about 3,000 meals are provided to students through various programs, a spokeswoman for the district said in an email.

Some of the food from the LunchLab program in August 2021.

Some of the food from the LunchLab program in August 2021. PHOTO BY T.J. CONWI /jpg

The spokesperson, who didn’t want to be named, said “inflation projections were included” when the budget was drawn-up and “any impacts are presented in the amended budget process.”

She said the provincial government’s increased funding of $60 million for all school districts announced last week will be used in part to fund meal programs.

The Surrey school district has about 2,000 students in its meal program, spokeswoman Ritinder Matthew said in an email. She said there are “significant budget pressures due to inflation” on food and transportation prices, and the provincial funding announcement will mean a one-time increase of $7.3 million in new money, which can be used for the meal program and other student activities.

“This will allow us to continue feeding all of our students that need this support, and accommodate any new students,” she said.

The program in Surrey is run by community donors, including the national Breakfast Club of Canada charity. Spokeswoman Judith Barry said demand for meal programs has grown 60-to-100 per cent in some districts across Canada during the pandemic.

The non-profit has launched a fundraising campaign to support its meal programs, which serve 18,500 children in B.C. There are also a couple of hundred schools on a waiting list to access the non-profit’s breakfast programs, and the number is growing, the charity said in a news release.

B.C. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said that the province came up with the extra $60 million for schools after hearing from districts, trustees, parents and families across B.C. on how tough the pandemic and inflation has been on family finances.

“I have heard it from districts all over the province,” she said. 

“We are definitely making changes because of higher demand and the opportunity for extra funding from the provincial government to school districts for food security, etc.,” Cindy Waters of the Chilliwack Bowls of Hope Society, which helps provide school meals, said in an email.

“The pandemic has had a huge impact on the delivery and cost of school food programs,” said Harold Munro, editor-in-chief of The Vancouver Sun and The Province and chairman of The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund, which operates the Adopt-A-School program.

“Adopt-A-School distributed nearly $1.4 million to B.C. schools last year, three-quarters of which went to feeding children,” he said. “Rising inflation has only made the situation worse, and demand for food is extremely high again this school year.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the name of the Surrey school district spokesperson.