Feeding Hungry Minds Since 1990
By Amanda Jette Knox
It’s an early autumn morning at a school in the heart of Ottawa.
The gymnasium windows are open and sunlight spills onto a few tables topped with bowls of fresh fruit. In a corner of the gym, one volunteer butters toast, while another pours milk into cups.
Students slowly trickle in, chatting with one another. Grabbing plates, they sit down to enjoy their first and, arguably, most important meal of the day.
Welcome to a typical morning at the Ottawa Breakfast School Program.
Twenty-four years ago, a group of teachers voiced their concerns about children coming to school hungry, and a need was identified to create a more unified student nutrition program. With input from local educators, community members, the United Way and the Community Foundation of Ottawa, the Ottawa Network for Education launched a regional school breakfast program.
Today, the Ottawa Breakfast School Program provides a morning meal to students in schools all across the capital. “Nutrition is a priority,” explains Carolyn Hunter, the program’s director. “We use fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, yogurt and cheese. We try to encourage variety. Eggs are a big part of the program, too; one school serves frittatas every Friday.”
What started as an initiative in 25 schools serving 1,000 children has grown into a program serving over 12,000 students in 154 schools across Ottawa’s four public boards. The program’s motto is instructive: “All kids in Ottawa start their day with a healthy breakfast, ready to learn.” While the program feeds mostly lower-income students, no child is ever refused a meal.
“There’s research supporting that kids who eat breakfast every morning improve their grades and have better health,” Hunter explains. “And with the program, they are exposed to foods they might not otherwise be exposed to. We hope this will lead to healthy new habits.”
Around 300 volunteers, made up mostly of school staff members and parents, run the daily breakfast program. Behind the scenes are three community development coordinators who visit the schools on a regular basis, prioritize the menu and provide a budget to keep the meals coming. They also supply small kitchen items to the schools, such as toasters, blenders, knives and cutting boards to help with the more than two million breakfasts served throughout the school year.
The breakfast program receives two-thirds of its yearly budget from the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services, to the total of $1 million. The rest is fundraised through community initiatives. “We need to raise half a million dollars [each year],” says Hunter. “But the Ottawa community is generous, and great at supporting their children. [Fundraising] helps the community get more involved in the program.”
Want to help feed hungry school kids? Hunter suggests visiting the program’s website. “We have ideas for people looking to get involved. We suggest hosting an event to benefit the program, making a donation, or becoming a volunteer.”
For more information on the Ottawa Breakfast School Program, visit www.onfe-rope.ca
* With files from Catherine Jackman.