Twirled on forks, dangled from their fingers or slurped straight from the bowl, Secord Elementary students love a spaghetti lunch.
In fact, says Jennifer Cruise, organizer of the school’s nutrition program, students will sometimes line up three or more times when a hot dish is on the menu.
“Yesterday was just kidney beans and rice – beans and rice! And they were licking their plates,” Cruise said, laughing.
Now in its third year, the Secord lunch program costs $10 a month for parents who can afford it, and serves 270 students every school day.
Another 50 students start their day with the school breakfast program, which is another $10 a month, and all 650 students get a healthy snack after their first morning recess. Cruise said Secord’s lunch program is the largest in Toronto so far.
“The closest to us last year had 76 kids, and we were at 240,” she said.
Secord’s nutrition program got started three years ago by Principal Lisa Moser, who saw a need and who had seen a similar program benefit students at Earl Haig Public School.
“We have many students living in poverty, and it’s extremely important that they are fed during the day – a healthy, nutritious meal,” Moser said.
“We can’t expect them to come to class ready to learn if they are hungry.”
In Toronto, an estimated 40 per cent of all children go to school hungry, according to Toronto Foundation for Student Success, which funds 600 school nutrition programs across the city.
That figure can be as high as 68 per cent in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods.
In 2011, the average monthly grocery bill for a Toronto family of four was $778 – $300 less than what Ontario’s welfare program provides for food, clothing and other necessities, according to an August report by the Conference Board of Canada.
Moser said about one-third of the funding for Secord’s meals program comes from city or provincial grants.
“Without it, we wouldn’t be able to run the program,” she said. “So far, we’ve managed to get something every year – sometimes it’s cut, sometimes it’s boosted up a bit.”
Secord also gets sponsorships, such as the stove, toaster, microwave and stand-up fridges donated by The Brick, and the breakfast program funding from Re/Max. Both companies also send staff to volunteer.
All the cooking, serving and dish washing is done by volunteers – mostly parents, students, nursing students from Ryerson – and they all work out of one small kitchen with one stove, a divided oven and, thankfully, an industrial-strength dishwasher.
Zebun Nisa, another volunteer, started coming three days a week last year because she has a son in Grade 4.
“He’s very happy,” she said. “He comes every day at eight o’clock for the breakfast program, and in the morning my daughter comes to volunteer. She’s in Grade 12 and came last year too.”
Besides having enough food to eat, Cruise said eating with classmates means students may pick up healthy eating habits more easily than at home.
“What I find is that a lot of kids wouldn’t have eaten half of this food if their friends weren’t eating it,” she said, smiling.
“It’s monkey see, monkey do.”