A growing battle to make sure kids don’t go hungry

Fire hoses were at full blast September 12 at the Breslau fire station as the community raised more than $5,000 for the local Food4KidsWR charity during the first car wash hosted by the firefighters.

Water cascaded from the hose on top of the fire truck as vehicles first entered the drive-thru car wash. Plenty of volunteers, many family members of local firefighters, helped put a shine on the day.

Jennifer Birnstihl, marketing and fundraising coordinator for Food4Kids in the region, said the organization is grateful for the effort, which exceeded the goal of $2,000, adding she has seen an increase in kids accessing the charity food service during the pandemic.

Food4Kids launched in 2016 by providing meals to some 19 children. Five years later, the organization is providing meals to more than a thousand kids each week.

“It’s kind of an invisible problem because kids that need the help are often just flying under the radar – they often don’t say anything because they’re embarrassed. In some cases they may be afraid to ask for help because their parents may get in trouble and they may get taken away by children and family services. They don’t want to cause anybody to go ‘why has this child got no food,’ because then all of a sudden someone’s investigating – they just keep very quiet and it’s the teachers who notice, and the staff in the schools are the ones who identify our kids,” said Birnstihl.

“We try to add schools as much as we can, it costs $1,000 a year to feed one of our children – the only reason we have to stop letting kids in the program in schools is just because we have to be responsible financially. Currently we can’t add anybody else because we can’t afford it.”

Food4Kids in the Waterloo Region feeds kids up to the age of 14. Currently, they have to turn away kids due to a lack of funds.

“We could probably be in every school in Cambridge, there is such a need. I have schools on the waiting list – none of those schools are going to get in until September 2022. It’s the hardest part of my job, saying no. I had a school call me, a family of 10, dad is not working, and I had to say no,” said program coordinator Cali Dubois.

Food4KidsWR noticed a rise in demand when COVID first hit, as many people who thought they no longer needed their services quickly found themselves out of work with hungry kids to feed, calling to sign back up.

In preparing food for the kids, the organization takes into account special dietary needs. They have a special room for kids with allergies or other restrictions that only a few volunteers’ coordinate. They have two packing rows, with one for halal food only.

“We always give them two oatmeals a week no matter what; if someone’s going to do a food drive, we will often say ‘get us oatmeal’ we go through 2,000 of these a week. Get your group together, go crazy and do an oatmeal drive,” added Birnstihl about their most needed food item.

People can donate money or volunteer their time to Food4Kids, as the group needs drivers every Friday to help deliver the food bags to kids at schools.

“Every Friday they get this big bag of goodies, 16 to 18 items, and it’s meant to get them through the weekend, that is our purpose – there’s lots of help going on in schools during the week, we’re just to fill in the gap on the weekend.”

Food4KidsWR was started after a need was noticed by their executive director, Kelly-Sue Oberle, that some kids weren’t able to get food to eat during weekends, often coming to school Monday with empty backpacks.

The items included in food bags to children in the region each week include fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and cheese products, cereals or grains, proteins, juice, oatmeal, and a treat.

The pandemic created many complications for the local charity, noted Dubois, including a lack of volunteers, rising food costs, school lockdowns and more families reaching out to use its services.

“It’s gone up 15 per cent. I used to just contact the grocery stores pre-pandemic and tell them what I wanted, no problem, Now there are supply chain issues from the fields to the pickers – grocery stores are having limits put on them,” said Dubois about the rising prices and availability of food items.

The organization is hoping to get more farmers to help with donations, as the cost goes up and the need for food from kids increases with it. Every week Food4KidsWR needs a variety of items used to fill up food bags for the thousand children they provide for.

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