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Food4Kids filling young bellies

Aug 14, 2014

Dan Kislenko, The Hamilton Spectator

There's a palpable sense of excitement, a celebration, on Friday mornings among some of the kids at Bennetto school.

They know they're going to eat on the weekend.

They're not alone. Across Hamilton and Halton, some 600 children at 38 schools are taking part in the Food4Kids program. It provides a bag of healthy food - apples, a banana, an orange, fresh vegetables, a can of soup, bread - for kids who otherwise would go hungry until Monday, perhaps even longer.

"I've been here for two and a half years and have seen the need increase dramatically," says Bennetto principal Mary Finstad. "I've seen these kids come to school hungry. The impact of Food4Kids has been outstanding. Now on Monday they're more attentive and focused."

Finstad says there are about 50 children in the program right now, but that likely will grow to 60 this school year.

"At first we thought the kids would be shy so the staff and teachers handled things quietly. But we find there's a lot of excitement, and the students have become quite vocal now."

This is the second full year for Food4Kids in Hamilton. While there are informal similar food-share attempts elsewhere, this is the only community in the country with an organized program, says executive director Lena Bassford.

"We looked at the existing models in the U.S., but have been very careful about not stigmatizing children in the program, " she says. "We have also put the emphasis on health and prevention, so we're not giving out candies or things liked boxed macaroni and cheese."

The challenge, Bassford says, is being able to maintain consistent healthy food supplies over time. Food4Kids relies entirely on donations from the public (Bassford specifically cites Zarky's for providing all grain products). There is no base of government funding. The program has applied for and received the odd grant, but that's it. Volunteers look after packing the bags for the kids every Wednesday evening and delivering them to the schools early Friday.

"It's Christmas every Friday for the kids, " Bassford adds. "You'll find them walking past the school office about 9:30, looking to make sure their bag is there. Someone at the school makes sure that bag is tucked into the child's backpack."

Bassford notes that the need for food for children is not limited to certain areas of the city or certain people.

"The need is across the board. People can be in need because of illness, job loss, a marriage breakup, the cost of living, " she says. "We've all felt hunger for a short time. But we can't imagine what it's like to feel that way all day every day. For some people the dilemma is paying rent or buying food."

Teachers and school staff identify children in need. They then contact the family for permission to enrol the child.

"The families love the program. It diminishes their stress levels and relationships improve, " Bassford says. "Every donation helps. Every penny goes to the kids."

The children in Food4Kids range in age from five to 14. Each bag contains about $10 worth of food and is customized for a particular child, taking into account allergies and religious restrictions, among other things. The older kids get a little additional food in their bags. If there are brothers and sisters from the same family, each gets an individual bag.

Marianne D'Allessandro and Kim Posavad are volunteers with Food4Kids, both serving on an advisory committee assessing program needs and helping raise funds.

"This is a fantastic program. You quickly realize these kids don't have anything to eat for the weekend, " says D'Allessandro. "Families are struggling, and knowing something extra is coming home for the weekend relieves some worries."

"It's really remarkable, " says Posavad. "There was a real need. It's human nature to be generous to children. It's great to see this work. People are making a difference."

Right now Food4Kids is a weekend food relief project during the school year. But this past summer, Bassford was able to launch Camp Nutrition. It was a series of week-long programs with 10 to 15 kids each week, held at different schools participating in Food4Kids. The objective was to educate the children on all aspects of healthy eating. They learned how to grow vegetables, visited community gardens, and were taught how to prepare healthy, low-cost meals by local professional chefs.

"It's been amazing to see the change in the attitudes of the kids toward healthy eating, " says Bassford. "It reinforces that if they're eating healthy today, they'll eat healthy tomorrow."

dkislenko@thespec.com

 

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