Sunday, January 31, 2016

Feeding Young Bodies and Minds #Toonies4Tummies

Every morning I fight struggle with Boo to get him out of bed and moving. Every. Single. Morning. We live around the corner from school, and still he manages to be late. And, sadly, breakfast is almost always the thing that gives. There just isn't time. Unless I wake him up super early. So we make a choice each day - send to school a tired child, or a hungry one?

It's a crappy choice to have to make, but we're actually among the lucky ones. You see, our school has a morning meal program. Every day, Monday to Friday, all through the school year, all 230 of our K-8 kids are provided with a balanced and healthy breakfast. Families who can contribute financially to the program do, those who can't, don't have to. But the majority of the money comes from external sources. The external funding makes our program possible, and helps to ensure that our kids have full bellies to feed their bodies and minds to get the most out of the school day.

Boo is that 1 in 4 grade fours kid who doesn't eat breakfast each morning. Whether because of time constraints, their individual biology, or finances, this means 25% of our grade fours are going to school hungry. And we know that has serious detrimental effects on their ability to concentrate in the classroom and learn. The Grocery Foundation is focused on improving this situation and supporting student nutrition programs across Ontario. Since its establishment in 1979, the not-for-profit Foundation has contributed over $85 million to more than 250 organisations involved in health, wellness, and nutrition initiatives across the province.

These days their focus is specifically on school nutrition programs, and they work closely with the Ontario Student Nutrition Program Network (OSNPN) to support in-school programs like the one at our school. Their major fundraiser is the Toonies for Tummies campaign, which runs this year from February 4-18, in cooperation with 13 corporate sponsors and nearly 400 grocery stores, including Metro, Longo's, Food Basics and 30 independent retailers. Shoppers can donate a toonie at the cash register, or make a donation online. That $2 will buy a full, healthy breakfast for one child. And, thanks to the generosity of the sponsors, 100% of all donations go directly to nutrition programs. Your toonies will go towards feeding more than 800,000 students in over 4500 programs across the province. What an impact!

Plus they have a new initiative this year. On February 8, The Grocery Foundation is hosting the first ever Agents of Change Summit, where they will bring together high school students and members of the food industry to discuss ways to engage youth in advocating for and promoting the benefits of school-based nutrition programs.  Eleven Youth Ambassadors will make presentations to these food industry representatives, including sponsors of the 2016 Toonies for Tummies Campaign and retailer partners. Their presentations will be focused on offering insights and recommendations to the food industry, centred on engaging youth in the topic of school nutrition. Recommendations will also touch on ideas to engage parents and stakeholders, including school boards, Canada’s food manufacturers and the grocery retail industry, as well as the community at large.

I had the chance to chat with one of these amazing students earlier this week. After our conversation I am especially looking forward to hearing her whole presentation at the Summit!

Meet Katherine

Katherine is a grade 12 student at T.A. Blakelock High School, in Oakville, and is currently leading the breakfast program there. She became interested in student nutrition during an outreach program in Kenya last year, where she was shocked to see how little the children had to eat each day. These kids didn't complain at all, even though when the volunteers spent a day following their diet, they found it almost impossible to function. She came back and went right to her school's breakfast program to volunteer.

At T.A. Blakelock, they feed over 200 students each morning, which represents about 25% of the student body. Daily breakfasts include bagels, cream cheese, fruit, and cereals. And a couple of times a month they are able to serve a special meal of pancakes or smoothies. The program is run by Katherine and one of the teachers, along with about 60 student volunteers. Every student at the school is welcome to take part and financial need is not a requirement.  Don't have time to eat at home?Come on in? Or maybe the social aspect appeals to you. Whatever your reason or need, the program is there for you, and because of this variety of students involved, there is really no stigma attached. That in itself makes it easier for new participants to come on board.

For her Summit presentation, Katherine conducted a survey of students who attended the breakfast club on a particular day, to gain insight into how they perceived the program. Most of those surveyed were actually shocked at the idea that there might be a stigma surrounding the program, and the general opinion was that it was a welcoming and fun place to start the school day. To me this speaks volumes about the success of the program and its ongoing ability to feed T.A. Blakelock students who need it.

Katherine and I talked about the power of statistics, and she made some great points. As she says, there's a lot of shock value in hearing that 1 in 6 kids are going to school hungry, but she'd prefer to focus on the positive steps that have been taken, and the successes that have been achieved. There's hope in the message that, with funding and resources, we can and have made important steps forward in making sure our kids are getting the nutrition they need for both school and life.

But there's still work to be done, and that is a key focus for her. She's looking forward to the opportunity to bring her ideas and experiences to the Summit to share them with food industry representatives, who are really in a position to foster change. In Halton Region for instance, Katherine told me there are 120 school nutrition programs, but around 200 schools. Why can't these programs reach students in all the schools? And why are some programs stronger and better funded than others? She'll be presenting her 7 step checklist for a successful breakfast program, and will be encouraging the industry folks present to get involved. As she says, the students are on the ground. They see the need and know the best ways to reach other students, plus they have the interest and energy to run the programs. What they don't have is the funding, and public relations teams, and contacts - that's where the brands can step in to make a huge difference.

I was honestly thrilled to chat with Katherine, and her enthusiasm and passion were palpable. She is an awesome ambassador for Toonies for Tummies, and I believe she'll make a huge impression at the Summit.

Does your child's school have a breakfast or lunch program? Is it well attended?

See what these kids think of the#Toonies4Tummies program -

Join Us on Twitter!

On Tuesday, February 2, we'll be meeting up on Twitter to chat all about the #Toonies4Tummies campaign and the amazing impact of school nutrition programs across Ontario. We're scheduling two half hour slots for this, to make sure everyone can find a time to attend. Choose your time, or come for both - 1-1:30pm or 9-9:30pm EST. I'll be there for both :)

More important information!

Disclosure: This post is brought to you by the Grocery Foundation, but all opinions on this blog, as always, remain my own. Healthy meals for hungry children? Who couldn't get behind that idea?

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