There are many school nutrition programs that exist across the city, feeding almost 200,000 kids in Toronto daily, but once the school year ends many families find themselves without support.

summerlunch+ is one organization in Toronto working to change that. Founded by Susan Wright in the fall of 2015, summerlunch+ provides free lunches to kids attending summer camps that are either free or low cost. Susan Wright worked with the Breakfast Clubs of Canada for many years, overseeing the day-to-day needs of school nutrition programs in Ontario. On multiple occasions, she was approached by teachers, principals and community leaders looking for support through the summer months for camps and summer programming.

The summerlunch+ model is special in that they work very closely with the local community to design and implement the program, and to prepare the food for the kids. Food is sourced as locally as possible, and adapted to the tastes and needs of the community. Each community is unique and correspondingly, the implementation of the program is different in each neighbourhood.

In the first year of operation, Susan met with Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office as they run a free summer camp for kids. There is a significant proportion of youth in that area, and the camp sees 200 students a day. Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office is one of 8 partner agencies of the Healthy Kids Community Challenge in Danforth-East York.

With funding secured for food and supplies, Susan needed staff to make the food. She applied for the Focus on Youth Toronto (FOYT) program with the TDSB which connects students with employment and leadership opportunities. Through FOYT, summerlunch+ was able to bring on 7 students, plus another student from Canada Summer Jobs. Most of the funding Susan received was designated for food, so having access to student workers was critical. Together, the team made 200 meals a day!

Throughout the duration of the summer camp, the team administered surveys and checked in with the kids to make sure that the food was not only nutritious, but was what the kids actually wanted to eat. All the food was prepared fresh and made from scratch, and was halal.

As the summerlunch+ team asked kids what they liked and disliked, they found that the kids kept asking for comfort favourites like tacos or pizza, so they offered healthy versions of these meals. Do-it-yourself meals were a big hit – for example on taco day, kids could choose to top their tacos with spiced chickpeas, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, corn, guacamole and salsa. When kids are empowered to make their own food choices, it helps foster healthier eating. By putting a multitude of healthy options on the table, kids were getting a big boost of fruits and veggies no matter which toppings they chose!

summerlunch+ also provided kids with the opportunity to try new foods they may not have previously been exposed to. According to the survey results, in the first 2016 camp season, kids tried between 4-10 new veggies! Peaches were a big hit, with many kids citing them as their new favourite! The more food they try, the broader their palate will be going forward.

summerlunch+ has seen considerable growth in this past year – having just wrapped up a second season of summer camp, they have expanded from one location to three (now in Alexander Park, and the MLSE Launch Pad in addition to Thorncliffe Park). The student team has expanded from 8 to 18, and they now also have their own garden space as well!

The community garden is located in the back of a residential apartment building on Thorncliffe Park Drive. It is a convenient place for kids to go locally, and they can plant things and return in a week or two to see them grow. It also offers an opportunity to engage with the local residents – there are 600 residents living in the tower adjacent to the garden space.

Many communities don’t have great resourcing around fresh food and groceries. Thorncliffe in particular has been referred to as a “food desert”, and the ability to access fresh food is lower. Urban agriculture is fantastic because it creates a bigger local food supply.

summerlunch+’s vision is to close the achievement gap with nutritious lunches and engaging programming over the summer months. With our help, children will learn first-hand the value of a healthy meal, and acquire good food habits for life.

summerlunch+ is filling a real need to bridge the gap between June – September to ensure that kids are fed and supported year round. summerlunch+’s model of working with local communities to co-create programs that meet their needs and tastes has been a huge success! summerlunch+ is continuing to grow and expand to provide support to even more communities across the city!

For more information on summerlunch+, please visit: http://www.summerlunchplus.com/


This post was originally published on Danforth-East York here