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. 


A Recipe for a Happy Holiday


Local food-focused charities partner with chefs and local businesses to support edible education this holiday season

Growing Chefs and Fresh Roots Farms have written the recipe for a happy holiday

  • Start with two local food-focused charities (Growing Chefs and Fresh Roots)

  • Engage three talented local chefs (Chefs Robert Clark, Tasha Sawyer, TJ Conwi)

  • Add generous philanthropists (Willow Grove Foundation and more)

  • Throw in a boatload of sustainable seafood (Organic Ocean)

  • Mix with 345 spatulas and ladles (House of Knives)

  • Finish with a cup of creativity, a teaspoon of generosity, and a pinch of love.

Chef Tasha Sawyer
Photo Credit: Mavreen David Photography

LunchLAB is a collaborative project between two local charities, Growing Chefs and Fresh Roots. In LunchLAB, students learn to grow their own food, supplement that food from local farms, and with the support of their teacher and chef-in-residence, learn to cook for themselves and their peers. This week, hundreds of children will go home with one of their favourite LunchLAB dishes and a special gift to help them keep cooking at home.

“We are not able to be in schools right now and our LunchLAB chefs and team miss spending time with the LunchLAB students,” said Amanda Adams, Growing Chefs’ Program Director. “We wanted to let them know that we are thinking of them this holiday season. We can’t wait to be in the kitchen with them again.”

At Total Education High School, 45 students who regularly would be a part of our LunchLAB program are receiving a pasta meal kit with ingredients and instructions so they can practice their cooking skills at home by creating a nutritious meal for their family, all created by Chef Tasha Sawyer. Additionally, Chef TJ Conwi has bottled up the kids’ favourite salad dressing from the salad bar for 300 LunchLAB students at Lord Roberts Elementary School. They will also receive the recipe for this healthy dressing so they can teach their caregivers how to make it at home. All students will also receive a special gift from our friends at House of Knives to help them keep cooking.

Additionally, 80 local families in need will receive a generous gift of healthy, sustainable seafood (frozen shrimp and salmon, and canned tuna) from Organic Ocean, made possible by a donation from the Willow Grove Foundation. These families will also receive a recipe and cooking tips by Chef Robert Clark, recently appointed to the Order of Canada in November 2020 for establishing a world-renowned program to help businesses and customers identify and purchase sustainable seafood.

Seafood hampers will be distributed to families by Vancouver Coastal Health’s Leadership and Resilience program team and Vancouver Technical Secondary School. These are many of the same families that were provided with weekly meals earlier in the pandemic through our LunchLAB pivot, Chefs for Families.

“We are incredibly grateful for such a seamless collaboration between organizations and blown away by the number of people reaching out to volunteer their time and donate food, space, services, products and money. The resilience and support from our community is truly inspiring,” says Alexa Pitoulis, Executive Director of Fresh Roots.

About LunchLAB
Both Growing Chefs and Fresh Roots believe food can be a catalyst for positive change and a source of joy and inspiration, even during challenging times. LunchLAB is a collaborative project between two local charities, Growing Chefs and Fresh Roots. In LunchLAB, elementary and high school students learn to grow their own food, supplement that food from local farms, and with the support of their teacher and chef-in-residence, learn to cook for themselves and their peers.

About House of Knives
House of Knives’ vision is a simple one: to improve the quality of life of all those they encounter through education and innovation. Their goal is to match our customers with quality and functional tools and to educate them on how to use and maintain their tools. To achieve this, they strive to create an inclusive atmosphere within each of their stores where customers who appreciate quality feel comfortable entering and inquiring about their products and services. If customers’ needs are not obvious, they listen openly, and without prejudice or bias, to help them determine what their needs are and how to fulfill them. House of Knives aims to have their customers view them not only as a destination where one can purchase fine quality tools and functional gifts, but as a resource for the service, knowledge, and education required to use and maintain their investments.

About Organic Ocean
Organic Ocean was established by fishers who recognized that sustainable livelihoods rely upon sustainable fisheries. Driven by the growing demand for responsibly sourced seafood, Organic Ocean has evolved into a community of seafood producers — traditional, modern, and indigenous — all dedicated to the ecosystem and social stewardship. The top chefs were the first to recognize that by making choices for the good of our oceans, they were also being provided the finest ingredients. Now Organic Ocean fish and shellfish is also available for contactless, door to door delivery to the home or office. Organic Ocean is a Certified B Corporation and a member of 1% for the Planet and was named one of the Top 25 Sustainability-minded Seafood Suppliers That Have Transformed The North American Industry.


Donation Websites:

Photo and interview opportunities available.
Download High-Resolution Images Here:

Media Contacts:
Jaydeen Williams – Co-Interim Executive Director at Growing Chefs

Caroline Manuel – Communications and Engagement Manager at Fresh Roots
778-764-0DIG (0344), ext. 108

Program Contacts:
Amanda Adams – Program Director at Growing Chefs

Alexa Pitoulis – Executive Director at Fresh Roots 
778-764-0DIG (0344), ext. 101


COVID-19: Food educators, chefs pumping out thousands of meals for people in need

Randy Shore

There is no shortage of hungry people to feed in a city hobbled by the COVID-19 lockdown and that has spawned a massive network of people working for the common good.

LunchLAB launched last year to show kids how to grow and prepare food and by spring break more than 40 students had rotated through their cook’s training program, feeding 180 of their classmates twice a week.

So, when in-class instruction was suspended across B.C., the partners — Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society, Growing Chefs!, Vancouver school board, and Ono Vancouver chef TJ Conwi — quickly pivoted to provide meals to hundreds of families.

That’s more than 5,500 meals a week for families identified by the VSB’s youth and family workers, said Alexa Pitoulis, interim executive director of Fresh Roots.

“We weren’t sure what we would do going into spring break, but our brains started turning and we worked out a way to support the school board’s effort to feed families that would have been benefiting from school lunch programs,” she said.

The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund Adopt-A-School program contributed $20,000 through the VSB to help scale-up the renamed LunchLAB: Chefs for Families.When Pitoulis reached out to Mario Micelli, executive director of the Italian Cultural Centre, for some kitchen space he did them one better, offering up the Centre’s spacious catering kitchen and the ballroom, where food is packaged for pickup and delivery.“We have a large commercial kitchen where people can work and maintain social distancing,” he said“We were already in a partnership with Fresh Roots supporting distribution of school-grown food for families to pick up and we love that because there is nothing more Italian than preparing way too much food and sharing it with family and friends,” said Micelli. “I can’t believe the huge number of volunteers that have come out to accomplish all this.”ICC chef Jackson Noah and his team are also working for the cause.Food suppliers Yen Bros. and Gordon Food Service have supplied pallet after pallet of surplus food to keep the operation flush with raw materials.“They way people have come together to help out vulnerable families has been incredibly satisfying for us to be a part of,” said Micelli.You can make tax-deductible donations to LunchLAB through Fresh Roots or Growing Chefs!The Italian Cultural Centre is supplying ready-to-eat meals to the Grandview-Woodland Food Connection and Britannia Community Centre for people living in isolation.Conwi is also operating a satellite kitchen generously offered by Pacific Restaurant Supply, where he had been cooking for displaced restaurant workers.

“PRS said yeah, you can keep cooking here and lent me the space,” he said. “So, we just started cooking for people, whoever needs it, in the Downtown Eastside and we just kept scaling up.”

That food is flowing out to the LunchLAB: Chefs for Families program, the Aboriginal Mother Centre, and the Carnegie Community Action Project, which recently received 300 pizzas and 200 tubs of macaroni and cheese.

The commercial kitchen at The Dirty Apron has been serving up 2,000 meals a week since the cooking school and deli were put on hiatus.

Chef David Robertson and many of his staff are donating their time to prepare free meals for seniors who cannot safely leave their homes, residents of SRO hotels and other vulnerable communities. They are working in collaboration with the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Community College and Whole Way House.

Robertson’s crew is also supplying meals to frontline workers at Vancouver General Hospital and St. Paul’s Hospital through Feed the Frontline.

Salmon farmers Cermaq Canada, Grieg Seafood, Mowi Canada and Golden Eagle Aquaculture are donating 27,000 kilograms of salmon to food banks on Vancouver Island.

About 10,000 British Columbians depend on food banks and that demand is rising, according to Laura Lansink, executive director of Food Banks B.C.

“In some instances, numbers have already doubled and we’re seeing line ups grow longer, yet food donations are down. Some people who were donors are now food bank recipients,” she said. “It’s a very stressful situation for our food banks and we anticipate we will feel the repercussions of this for one or two years into the future.”


The Entire World is Re-Examining How Communities Operate Due to COVID-19. Here’s How We Fit In.

Growing Chefs! and Fresh Roots adapt LunchLAB program in response to COVID-19.

LunchLAB, our innovative pilot that could, evolved this past month to meet the current needs of families impacted by the pandemic. Those of us in the local farm and food world already informally work together and share common goals, so teamwork is not new for Growing Chefs! and Fresh Roots. We’ve been in cahoots for a couple of years now. In the fall 2019, we launched LunchLAB, a curriculum-based educational school meal program.

LunchLAB provides a space for students learn to grow their own food and, with the support of their teacher and chef-in-residence, learn to cook for themselves and hundreds of their peers twice a week. Through LunchLAB, we provide meals that:

  • strengthen local food systems and support local farms;
  • provide non-stigmatizing access to those that need it most;
  • are nourishing, safe, healthy, and delicious;
  • kids and youth want to eat.


With the closure of schools due to COVID-19,  Growing Chefs! and Fresh Roots, in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Centre, Ono Vancouver, and the Vancouver School Board (vsb), redesigned LunchLAB to become LunchLAB: Chefs for Families. This new program provides healthy, delicious, chef-prepared meals to families in need.

Times can be tough for Vancouver families right now, and even tougher for those families who may have already been struggling. We are offering families, identified by Youth and Family Workers at the VSB, healthy, chef-prepared meals that provide nourishment and dignity at this uncertain time. Both Growing Chefs! and Fresh Roots believe food can be a catalyst for positive change and a source of joy and inspiration, even during a crisis.

Before, LunchLAB was serving up to 440 lunches per week. Now, we’re at 5,500 meals! That’s more than a 1000% increase! These meals are made available for pick up or delivery two days a week to 260 local families. Created by professional chefs and composed of restaurant-quality dishes, the menus are carefully and thoughtfully crafted to bring comfort and enjoyment.

And they’re not just healthy, they’re absolutely delicious, and kid-approved!

Plus, we’re happy to be able to provide meaningful, paid work for chefs and kitchen professionals who would otherwise not be working. Growing Chefs! and Fresh Roots is currently providing more than 180 hrs/week of employment for our chef teams from Ono Vancouver and the Italian Cultural Centre. A huge THANK YOU to both the Italian Cultural Centre and Pacific Restaurant Supply who have donated the use of their kitchen facilities and equipment for the chef teams to prepare and portion the meals. AMAZING!

It’s also super-important to us that we support the entire food system, including local sourcing and diversion of food waste. Thanks for working with us and thank you for your donations Cropthorne Farm, Discovery Organics, Gordon Food Service, Nature’s Path, and Yen Bros Food Service. And we just have to give a shout out to our very own Fresh Roots schoolyard farms and farmers for contributing ultra-locally grown produce like carrots (carrot-top parsley anyone?!), parsley and greens.

And it’s not just food that the community is contributing. Fresh Prep generously donated cold packs for safe delivery of the meals, Fresh St Market donated paper bags for packing meals, Lyft has donated free rides for families to pick up meals, and Odd Society Spirits donated hand sanitizer for our volunteer delivery drivers. THANK YOU!


Program activities would not be possible without our volunteers. If you can spare some time, or would like more information about volunteer opportunities email Amanda Adams:

We are aware that not everyone is in a place to make a donation right now, and we understand.  If you or your employer are able to support, we hope you’ll Order Up* a chef-prepared meal for a family in need with a donation today! Each time you place an order, you provide fresh, healthy, restaurant-quality meals, salad making kits, fresh produce, and pantry staples to local families in need, RIGHT NOW.

* LunchLAB: Chefs for Families is a partnership. Contact and donation information will be shared with both charities, Growing Chefs! and Fresh Roots.

The cost to operate LunchLAB: Chefs for Families is $77,000 per month and donations are required to continue operation.

Financially Supported By:

Participating Collaborators: 

  • Italian Cultural Centreprovides LunchLAB with:
    • In-kind use of their entire facility and equipment to prepare, portion, and distribute the meals
    • Leadership, expertise and culinary talent from their Executive Chef Jackson Noah, their chefs, staff, and catering division
    • Community connections and supplier connections for in-kind support and donated food/fresh produce.
  • Ono Vancouverprovides LunchLAB with:
    • Support developing the new LunchLAB program concept, model, scale, and operations
    • Leadership, expertise, and culinary talent from Executive Chef TJ Conwi, one of the LunchLAB chef-in-residences, and his team of chefs
    • Community connections and supplier connections for in-kind support and donated food/fresh produce.
  • Vancouver School Boardprovides LunchLab with:
    • The list of participating families. Each week, the Manager of Enhanced Services and Youth and Family Workers from across the VSB sign up families they feel will best benefit from participating in the meal program.

Program Contacts:

  • Helen Stortini | Executive Director, Growing Chefs!| 778-858-0909

  • Alexa Pitoulis | Interim Executive Director, Fresh Roots| 778-764-0DIG (0344), ext. 101

Communications/Fundraising Contacts:

  • Jaydeen Williams | Development & Communications Director, Growing Chefs!| 604-710-1677

  • Caroline Manuel | Communications and Engagement Manager, Fresh Roots| 778-764-0DIG (0344), ext. 108

#LunchLAB #ChefsForFamilies #OrderUp #GrowingChefs #FreshRoots