By Amber McNeil, Junior Researcher
In Canada, it is common for children to bring packed lunch to school each day. Yet, this is not the case in much of the world. Globally, over 388 million children in 161 countries receive a meal throughout the school day, but Canada remains the only G7 country without a national school food program (School food programs around the World). Because children in Canada are expected to bring their lunch with them to school each day, many children, especially those who are of a low socioeconomic status, are going hungry (Aiello, 2023). In a country as wealthy as Canada, there is no excuse for youth going hungry while at school (School food programs around the World), so grassroots organizations, such as the YFC Youth Café are taking action.
In May 2022, I was working as a coordinator for a youth summer exchange program where anglophone youth have the opportunity to live and work in Quebec. One of my roles as an exchange coordinator was to promote the program to local high schoolers. After many Google searches and emails, the organization YOUTH UNLIMITED YFC Waterdown allowed me to come in during their lunch program to promote the program.
Figure 1: Source– https://www.thespec.com/local-flamborough/life/2022/01/31/waterdown-youth-centre-adapts-as-pandemic-wears-on.html
The YFC Youth Café is a particularly inspiring initiative that uses food as an organizing tool and community builder for high school students in the small town of Waterdown, Ontario, located outside of Hamilton.
As I set up the promotional table, I was immediately amazed by the café. I witnessed an uncountable number of youth all sharing a hot and delicious meal. As someone interested in food systems and food security, I began asking the staff members about the program. They shared that the café operated a no-barriers, free lunch program four days per week, that is available to any and all students four days per week. Over the next few hours, I watched as students came and left, some were playing video games, others were working on homework, and others were chatting with their friends. It served as a true testament to the power that food has to build community.
I began drawing connections between this organization and food security initiatives that I collaborated with through my work with Feeding City, such as the Scarborough Farmers’ Markets, Feed Scarborough, and 5n2. So, many months later, I decided that I wanted learn more about this organization. I reached out to Eric Mainse, the Satellite Director for YFC Waterdown, and he agreed to talk to me about this program.
This grassroots organization began in 2014, when a plot of land was generously donated to YFC Youth Unlimited. The Canadian organization aims to mentor youth and cultivates relationships within communities. The Waterdown location then used donations from local businesses, churches, friends, and family to construct the building where the café and other programming take place. Once the new satellite branch of YFC Unlimited opened, it was able to significantly increase its capacity and programming.
The primary goal of the café is to foster a safe space for youth to gather, hang out, and grow. When brainstorming ways to attract youth to their programming, the staff decided that free food was the best way to do so. Conveniently located beside the local high school, the YFC Café now attracts over 100 high school students per day.
Figure 2: Source – https://yfcwaterdown.com/check-out-the-new-space/
Mainse shared that it truly takes a village to run this type of program, and they are grateful for the support of local businesses and organizations. Because of the support of these organizations, the school lunch program runs from Tuesday to Friday, and each day features different types of food.
Sample menu for week:
- Tuesday: Soup, salad, and sandwiches
- Wednesday: Grilled cheese sandwich day
- Thursday: Pizza Day
- Friday: Smorgasbord Day
Alongside the main dishes, there is always a wide selection of vegetables, fruits, and dessert offered. The center accommodates wide ranging diets, including gluten-free products, vegetarian, and Halal options. As YFC has become a pillar in the community of Waterdown, it has developed close relationships with local businesses. Little Caesars, Cobbs Bread, and Fortino’s Grocery Store all make frequent food donations to the organization. Harvest Hands St. Thomas, a non-profit food rescue and distribution organization also supports the YFC Café by donating meat products, produce, and pre-made food, such as potato wedges.
According to Mainse, one of the biggest challenges facing the organization is always having an adequate number of volunteers. The organization is certified under the Plan to Protect abuse and vulnerable sector protection, which means that for every 10 students in the café, there must be 1 volunteer. For this reason, it can be difficult to predict how many volunteers are needed for each shift. In addition to the YFC Café, YFC Youth Unlimited also offers a number of other programs in Waterdown, including archery class, girls club, and an outdoor summer camp. Mainse says that there are many aspirations and goals for the organization, including hiring another staff and increasing their online content.
Why is this significant?
Food insecurity has significant and wide-ranging impacts on children. Children experiencing food insecurity may not receive sufficient nutrients, leading to deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, and essential macronutrients, which can hinder their growth and development. Food insecurity can also lead to increased stress and anxiety among children. The uncertainty and anxiety associated with not having enough food can negatively impact a child’s mental well-being, leading to emotional problems, behavioral issues, and even depression. The developmental setbacks, health problems, and educational challenges experienced during childhood may persist into adulthood. The cycle of poverty and food insecurity can continue through generations if not effectively addressed, impacting overall social and economic well-being (Thomas et al., 2019).
Addressing food insecurity in children, such as through initiatives such as the YFC Youth is crucial to ensure their health, well-being, and prospects. Implementing comprehensive strategies that focus on improving access to nutritious food, helps mitigate the negative impacts of food insecurity and foster positive outcomes for children. The YFC Café is just one of many organizations working hard to keep children fed across the country and serves as a precedent and model for other communities.
Donate to YFC Youth Cafe here: https://yfcwaterdown.com/donation/support-the-yfc-waterdown-general-fund/
Sign the petition for a universal school food program here: https://foodsecurecanada.org/resources-news/news-media/sign-petition-universal-school-food-program
Aiello, R. (2023, April 12). School food programs left waiting for Liberals to make good on $1B promise for national plan. CTVNews. Retrieved April 17, 2023, from https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/school-food-programs-left-waiting-for-liberals-to-make-good-on-1b-promise-for-national-plan-1.6352297
School food programs around the World: Lessons for Canada. The Coalition for Healthy School Food. (n.d.). https://www.healthyschoolfood.ca/school-food-programs-around-the-world#:~:text=Over%20388%20million%20children%20in,a%20national%20school%20food%20program.
Thomas, M., Miller, D. P., & Morrissey, T. W. (2019). Food insecurity and child health. Pediatrics, 144(4).https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2019-0397