Food for the Soul

As food insecurity increases in school, Edmonton Catholic Schools Foundation’s Conquer Hunger program pivots to serve both in-person and virtual classrooms during the pandemic

A number of years ago, Marc Barylo, executive director of Edmonton Catholic Schools Foundation, was walking the halls of a school with a principal. One of the school’s students, Grade 4, seemed to hang on their words.

“When we told him that we were going to have lunch,” recalls Barylo, “the kid replied, ‘Aw, that’s nice’.”

“The principal asked if he was hungry. The child replied, ‘Yeah, it wasn’t my turn to eat yesterday.’”

Catholic Schools has just more than 44,000 students in 95 schools. Barylo says that 20 per cent of the families in their system live below the poverty line. At 18 of their highest-needs schools, between 40 to 70 percent of families live below that line. Hunger in school-aged kids is an all-too-familiar price of family poverty.

At the Edmonton Catholic Schools Foundation, Barylo is in charge of raising funds to cover off several assistance programs, once of which is the Conquer Hunger program. It’s the program that supports 4,050 kids by providing healthy breakfasts, snacks, and lunches at school, depending on the specific capacities and infrastructures at those schools.

“In many cases, the only meal they receive all day is when they are going to school,” says Barylo.

The pandemic has only made matters worse. Barylo points out the combination of  increased need and amplified complexity in the delivery of healthy foods.

First, delivering school snacks and meals has become more involved than ever, with COVID-19 distancing and sanitation protocols requiring more logistics and personnel.

And with the move to on-line schooling, ECSF has had to pivot to deliver weekly food hampers to their kids at home. This has required logistics and volunteer hours beyond the usual routine.

As needs and costs to deliver this program go up, individual donor dollars have gone down, as with most other charities in 2020.

This is where Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) was able to step in to provide a grant from the Government of Canada’s Emergency Community Support Fund.

“We recognize that the pandemic has interrupted many of the funding sources that organizations depend on, including personal donations,” Nneka Otogbolu, ECF’s Director of Communications and Equity Strategy, says. “This grant is here to help the Edmonton Catholic School Foundation continue supporting its students during COVID-19.”

The $40,000 Emergency Community Support Fund grant from ECF “could not have come at a better time,” declares Barylo.

“We all know — studies have shown over the years — that if a child is not being fed appropriately, especially under the age of 12, they can’t study as well. They can’t concentrate. They have behavioural issues. And so on.”

Having meals and snacks at schools takes care of that physical need for good nutrition. But Barylo says that having the Conquer Hunger program also lets the kids feel loved.

“Here you’ve got the Edmonton Community Foundation giving out the money that is going to help this child feel supported by the community. It makes them feel like they are part of a family, that their lives make a difference.”

“That’s a big deal to a child.”

Learn more about ECF’s COVID-19 response.