The pandemic has increased the number of children living with food insecurity in the region. Pre-COVID, Food4Kids Waterloo Region had 12 children on their waiting list, now they have 160.
“Last year, at this time, we had 95 children on the waitlist. Pre-COVID, the most I’d have on the waitlist would be 10 or 12 children. COVID has exacerbated the food insecurity for children in the region,” said Cali Dubois, program coordinator at Food4KidsWR.
Alongside the 160 children on the waitlist for bags of food from Food4Kids are 10 local schools. Dubois notes it’s difficult to say how many children in those schools need assistance with food. They are hoping by next September to have more funding or donations to address the backlog.
“We’re trying to look at increasing our buying or purchasing power through networks. And that’s something that’s part of our strategy for 2022, is to maximize our purchasing power as much as possible,” said Lorri Detta, the organization’s new executive director, who says she’s ready to take on this new year, despite another lockdown in Ontario. “Bring it on.”
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Detta comes into her new position with a comprehensive background that will help grow the work Food4Kids does in the region.
“I previously worked for KW Habilitation, that’s where I spent a great deal of my career, and I really learned a lot there. I also have been involved as a board member and a volunteer for various nonprofits that focus on child and youth development. I also have ongoing involvement as a crisis responder and big sister,” said Detta, noting her recent work with Nutrition for Learning in the region that gave her insight into children’s food insecurity.
“We’ve connected recently with Nutrition for Learning, and we hope to find some ways that we can work together to be more successful in each of our programs.”
Also, a board member on various family counselling services around the region, her knowledge of the problem and how to solve it is expansive. Detta also can give insight from her own personal experiences, which inspired her later in life to help solve this issue.
“I came from a very high-risk background with respect to my own upbringing – a child doesn’t just decide they want to live in poverty, it’s just something that happens to them. It becomes so normalized. I have to say it’s those organizations that I volunteer at and many more out there that provides a safety net that help children be successful in their lives. I know from firsthand experience; just how important it is to have that. Otherwise, children are at risk, and it will cost society even more with other programs or other adult social assistance or social services. It’s really important to intervene at an early age or as early as possible for successful leader development. And that’s been a strong message at every organization I volunteered at as well,” said Detta.
With the announcement that Ontario is going back to step 2, students went back home to their laptops for remote learning. Food4KidsWR is bracing for the complex challenges ahead, wanting to feed as many children in need in the region as they can, they’ve gone from school deliveries to home, already ready for their first delivery to more than 800 kids.
“We are starting home delivery. In the past when we were locked down, we did grocery cards. Our buying power is greater with food, and the children will receive more food. It’s more of a benefit to give them food than to give a grocery card because of our buying power. We’ve definitely seen it restricted, grocery stores are being restricted on how much they can order, therefore we’re restricted on how much we can order from them too,” said Dubois.
“This is a huge organizational task that we have to accomplish, to plan this in a week. We’re a very small but mighty team,” said Jennifer Birnstihl, marketing coordinator at Food4KidsWR, confident they’ll be able to hand out food bags to 886 kids every Friday while they are doing remote learning.
“I have a feeling a lot of families think that they’re not going to receive anything, so I think it’s going to be a relief when they find out that they’re going to start receiving food,” said Dubois.
Food4Kids was happy to see some families leave their program this past December, knowing they were able to provide stable footing for them to do so. As the waitlist grows, being able to replace families with new ones looking for help is the goal.
“The mission of the organization is to serve kids, but our concern is last time this happened the phone starts ringing, the waitlist is going to get bigger because a lot of the families who perhaps work in a restaurant and the mom is a waitress and is now out of work and that’s what’s scary,” noted Birnstihl. “If people want to help, a really easy way is to sponsor a child for one year in the program. It’s $1,000. We call that One Child. Individuals can do it, groups can do it, service clubs, churches… it’s a really wonderful way for people to get behind it.”
Listed as an essential service, Food4Kids’ doors are open, following public health safety precautions, their volunteers help get the food out each week, delivering bags of healthy food to fill in the gaps on the weekend.
“My goals are to address that waitlist, working with the staff here. Addressing the waitlist requires more fundraising, more program development, organizational development, so it’s a very strong goal. I really also hope to work with other organizations to create a strong organization for us, perhaps looking at associating with others so that we can have a better purchasing power, or that we can align our missions because Food4Kids is covering a gap in the Region of Waterloo that is not being served by other organizations. Together, we can be stronger and better in addressing children’s food insecurity,” said Detta about the current children on the waitlist. “I think we can accomplish so much together just in the short time that I have been involved with Food4Kids. I would say just the passion of the staff, the board, volunteers and generosity of the community in the region is amazing. And we will get there in the future.”